Bargemen muffled to the eyes

May 5th 2016

I’ve been obsessed with boardgames ever since I first moved to Birmingham and rented a room in a household which possessed The Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. Whenever I wasn’t trying to write a year’s worth of lectures and seminar plans I was founding little wooden cities and annexing my housemates’ farms. This boardgame, Brass, which I have played only once, is fiendishly complex and headache-inducing and involves building canals in the North West of England.

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Which serves as an introduction to April’s travels. I had a meeting in Wigan. The meeting was exciting and full of plans and ideas – including a day working on the Kennet museum barge if I can work out where to leave my car. But I had a bad cold which made me incapable of the layers of thought I require for any sort of poetic contemplation. I spent an hour walking the towpaths and all I wrote in my notebook is I have a bad cold. Since then I’ve had some time to reflect free of sinus problems and this month’s poem is dedicated to Wigan. Wigan strikes me as somewhere which has had a pretty tough time and hasn’t had the investment Liverpool or Birmingham or Manchester have had over the last couple of decades. Although there’s some great architecture and broad, expansive streets. It’s insanely cheap, so it should be somewhere all us broke artists, writers and musicians go and live instead of imagining spending 98% of our income on rent and transport in London will somehow bring us automatic creative success. The first thing you see when you leave Wigan train station is a vast, 8-shopfront-wide Cash Converters, which is a bit of a town-planning snafu if you ask me, but in time that could become a jazz bar / community bakery, right?

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Before that, though, a trip to Braunston Marina in advance of the day I’m spending there in June attempting to write a sonnet for a prize-winning boat in REAL TIME. Which means you’ll be able to watch me walking in circles, tearing out bits of my own hair and scribbling frantically into my notebook trying to find a rhyme for abaft.

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Braunston is a gorgeous marina and boatyard, lined with cherry trees, in full blossom on the day of my visit. There are houseboats with permanent moorings as well as 15-day permits. I meet a retired first violinist for the London Symphony. I pass a boat called MISFIT. There are also many boats up for sale. I wonder if the government offer 5% help-to-buy mortgages for houseboats and am on the point of taking out a loan via my mobile phone when I recall a conversation with my wife about not making rash financial decisions without at least texting one another first. I make do with a small toy houseboat for my son.

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I start walking back towards Birmingham. The clatter and bleat of the sheep truck as it mounts a humpback bridge. There is a barge serving cooked breakfasts. Still two weeks until Orthodox Easter, so I’m still temporarily vegan. There is no greater smell than a cooked breakfast.

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I think someone is giving me a slow handclap, but when I look across to the other bank I see a carpenter working on a boat, slapping some sawdust off his gloves. As a poet one gets so used to being recognised. And slow handclapped.

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Sometimes my students ask me about punctuation in poems. I try to take as Catholic an approach as possible to poetry in that the reading list is just Augustine’s Confessions every week for both terms. Haha. I mean small-c catholic, so we look at contemporary lyric poetry alongside avant-garde stuff, and we look at the Beats as well as the kind of poets who thought a poem should be a small, perfectible object. My advice is always that you have to be consistent. If you’re going to eschew punctuation, great, but make sure it’s for a reason, and make sure you’re not mostly eschewing punctuation apart from the odd fullstop when you want it. And if you find yourself using commas, maybe you should ask yourself why you wanted to eschew punctuation in the first place; maybe you should just use punctuation and make sure you’re using it correctly. [Stern face.] All of which is a laborious lead-in to this angry little collage poem. I love collage. My sources for this: the text of Orwell’s ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ alongside about 11 contemporary websites, including Cash Converters. I mean it to be a sort of love poem to Wigan, really, but one which levels with past and present injustices.

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COLLAGE POEM FOR WIGAN PIER

factory whistles
i was never awake to hear
black tripe grizzled squalid
museum exhibition hall and pub
fights with savage horses
maligned in music halls
we also offer payday loans
to forgive george orwell
we also take your xbox one
coming back is worse than going
former machinery floors
converted into apartments
we normally say flats
a brief unflattering mention
a planet one big piece of coal
most signs now gone
a rather horrible agility
bargemen muffled to the eyes
the lock gates and their beards of ice
and even this transfigured
not café rouged or papered over
but unredacted as we try
to understand what we were
the landlords loved their grievances
and do you think
we treat each other
any better now