A silent movie reshot and restored

photo credit Billie Charity-Prescott
photo credit Billie Charity-Prescott

August 16th 2016

Managed to take half a day walking the Oxford Canal towpath. Only for a few of its 78 miles towards Coventry. Planning to return with more time and better shoes soon, not least because I want to see an endangered water vole. The rollerball pen I am using is not of the usual brand and quality.


Four herons. Heroni? Anyway, within the space of half an hour this is as many heroni as I’ve seen in my lifetime up to this point. The way they take off like someone struggling to put up an umbrella on a windy day. Then they use their necks in a kind of retching motion to… reel themselves towards the sky. And after that they look impossibly graceful.


When I was first approached about the canal poetry role I suggested using the work of 17th century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō as a model, which I’ve more or less stuck to, insofar as Bashō presented his relatively brief poems amidst pages of anxious, doubt-riddled prose, thus his work is roughly 30% poetry and 70% self-loathing which is a ratio I can get behind.

“In this mortal frame of mine which is made of a hundred bones and nine orifices there is something, and this something is called a wind-swept spirit for lack of a better name, for it is much like a thin drapery that is torn and swept away at the slightest stir of the wind. This something in me took to writing poetry years ago, merely to amuse itself at first, but finally making it its lifelong business. […] ever since it began to write poetry, it has never found peace with itself, always wavering between doubts of one kind and another.” (The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Penguin, p.71)


It occurs to me that I never wrote up my day at the Braunston Historic Boat Show, or, indeed, put up the sonnet to the winning boat (Hadley). It took a while for the votes to come in and the herding cats analogy was invoked and I said, oh, I work in academia, my thesis was on cat herding. The hours went by, and I had a ride on the Nutfield, and a delightfully garrulous boy told me in great detail about the most difficult missions in the computer game Skyrim until I started hallucinating weird snake goddesses and people with swords for fingers and iridescent unicorns on the towpath. And then I ate a bacon sandwich, anxiously checking my watch. I was starting to regret committing myself to the sonnet, but in the event, scrunched into the driving seat of my car so I could charge my e-cigarette, the form provided the necessary discipline to write something I wasn’t completely humiliated to read out two hours later.

Photo of Hadley by Tim Coghlan, the managing director of the marina.
Photo of Hadley by Tim Coghlan, the managing director of the marina.


Hadley seen from land or when aboard,
Your blue and yellow as bright then as today
A silent movie reshot and restored.
Roses and castles carry the eye away
As far as any valley, East or West
Cut by your steel when you were Willow Wren’s.
We read the double-meaning of the crest,
We polish and rotate the camera lens,
You feel the engine’s thrum within your bones.
The smell of coalsmoke draws us to connect
The present to a past we might have known.
To redefine our course and our effect:
A swan defends his nest against the spray
Pecks at the aft and watches us obey.


What I really like about Bashō is that he mostly writes about feeling like a fraud. Feeling like a fraud is pretty much my factory setting. The cherry blossom trees at Braunston Marina are gorgeous and made me think of this bit. “I had a chance to see the cherry blossoms at different hours of the day – at early dawn, late in the evening, or past midnight when the dying moon was in the sky. Overwhelmed by the scenes, however, I was not able to compose a single poem.” (ibid. p.84) He puts in stray thoughts, worries, flights of fancy; as if the pattern of thoughts were as relevant as the landscape he was walking through. Which of course it is.


You will be pleased to learn I have secured funding for a project to travel the world studying untranslatable ways of saying I miss you. The project is to take 7 years and will involve local dialects, proverbs and metaphors, as well as an investigation of synonyms and nuance. I threw something at you and I missed you. It is anticipated that I will begin to transfer my feelings to the collaborative partner, a linguist, who will do most of the actual work and with whom a natural rapport will develop and because of whom the focus of the project will change irrevocably to ideas of emotional fidelity whereupon it will end, behind schedule and over-budget with few if any contributions to the field.


This month I’m doing a day’s volunteering at the Hillmorton Locks as penance for having previously suggested that lock-keepers spend their time ‘waving at boats’. Also, a friend alerted me to Dickens’s Household Words, a two-penny weekly he wrote and published, and a labour which almost destroyed him (lovingly scanned in here: http://www.djo.org.uk/household-words.html). There are some great bits about canals and I plan to use it as some kind of template for a future entry.