February 10th 2016
For two weeks I have forsaken the not inconsiderable charms of Birmingham’s tow-paths for warmer and more intense climes, but canals are never far from my mind. I had the privilege of a fortnight’s teaching and reading poems in India courtesy of the British Council (there is a blog here if you’re masochistic enough to require two Kennard think-pieces at the same time). I visited Jaipur, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Pune and Mumbai, and returned very sleepy. ‘But hey,’ I attempted to justify my dereliction of duty before setting off, ‘there are probably canals in India, right?’ And of course there are, but they probably don’t fall under the remit of the Canal & River Trust.
The Kharicut Canal in Ahmedabad is 20m wide and 20km long. My driver was keen to point it out as we passed. I forget now whether he was referring to the Kharicut Canal or the Narmada Canal (and my notebook got lost in a hotel), but as we paused in the middle of a six-lane highway so that I could take a picture of a monkey he told me several things about it. He told me that, thanks to recent canal work, every kitchen in the city had a tap installed which ran with sweet drinking water. ‘That’s just lovely,’ I exclaimed. I say this a lot, particularly when I’m a tourist. I cannot find corroborating evidence for the tap story after an hour’s Googling. Canals in Gujarat are used for irrigation as well as drinking water and there are often some fairly thorny political and ecological issues attached, which means several miles of column inches devoted to every development. Just two days ago a herd of 24 blue bulls fell in the Narmada and two were killed.
At the time the sweet water thing just struck me as a wonderful story, and I kept thinking about Oscar Wilde’s prose poem on the myth of Narcissus, ‘The Disciple’. In the prose poem, the pool Narcissus drowns in has changed from “a cup of sweet waters into a cup of salt tears” – a pool which eventually develops sentience and starts to talk.
“I kept thinking about Oscar Wilde’s prose poem…” is among the most pretentious things I’ve ever written, and I should add, in my defence, that I have written about that prose poem at length and often use it in writing workshops, so it’s a frequently accessed memory. In any case, thinking about the Kharicut/Narmada canals and the putative special sweet water tap in every kitchen, I couldn’t shake the image of a canal full of tears, which inspired the following prose poem in the Decadent style.
BECAUSE THE CITY was in mourning a canal was created to run the population’s tears over the border. A special tap was installed in every kitchen of their enemies, a silver tap in the shape of a weeping gargoyle. From the gargoyle their enemies could run a glass of cold tears and hold it up to the evening light. The tears of children, of mothers, of fathers, of grandparents. The tears of architects, police, machine operators and accountants. This, it was felt, might instil some sense of compunction and fellow-feeling in the enemies. But the enemies proved so lacking in basic humanity that they used the special taps to mix the tears with their Old Fashioneds, their Margaritas, their Gibson Martinis and their whisky sours. Some retaliation was called for, but first an account had to be given by those responsible for the initiative: what, after all, were they expecting? Those responsible for the taps, their conception, design, funding and installation were expelled over the border where they could see for themselves, in the words of a popular op ed piece, how far their naivety might carry them in the hands of their enemies. And the tears of the exiles were bottled by their enemies, labelled by an award-winning designer and exported back across the border. A product which, when mixed with the tears of the families they had left behind, proved a powerful cleaning fluid, anti-wrinkle cream, liniment and salve.
Since returning I’ve had some work to do in Stratford Upon Avon and spent some time between classes wandering the towpath with a blank notebook. I need to walk this line, which runs from suburban Birmingham (where I merrily approach middle age) all the way to the centre of Stratford: “with its guillotine-gated stop-lock that prevented water loss from one company’s line to the other”. There’s definitely something usable there.
I’ve got this new bubblegum flavoured vaping liquid for my e-cigarette: bliss to combine two awful habits at once! I would understand if you pushed me into the water should you pass me.
Lots of plans as the weather starts to improve. It’s the Leeds to Liverpool bicentenary, for instance. I have bought a new pair of walking boots. I may (shudder) even begin to learn something. Thanks for your patience in the opening months.