Canal Epistle: the end of Luke’s journey

November 2017

Lots of moored canal boats huddling together, bright grey cloudy sky
Boat Huddle

I had thought of writing my valedictory article in the form of a pop quiz, but I’ve decided that would only be funny for the first couple of questions, 1. Where did Kennard feel most awkward? etc. It’s been over eighteen months since my first outing in this residency and, having established early on that I hate learning, I thought it might do to focus on what I’ve learned. I can single-handedly operate a lock gate and have a working understanding of its wonderfully unlikely mechanics (which has given me a whole new respect for wood as a substance). I can press myself into a hedge to allow a cyclist to pass. I can nod politely at an angler and grimly at a long-distance runner. Perhaps most of all I’ve been able to use specific places and geographies in my work in a manner I hadn’t quite managed before. I want to invoke Roy Fisher’s phrase, “Birmingham’s what I think with.” It’s been a pleasure to think with canals during this residency. What I’m most grateful to the Canal and River Trust and the Poetry Society for is the freedom they’ve given me to wander and wonder, and the generosity and kindness with which they’ve received my work.

This is my last blog entry before the Canal Poet Laureate re-spawns, Who-like, in the new year. (I’m using a Doctor Who reference purely to ingratiate myself with the general reader. I was born in 1981 so was too young for the original and therefore lacked the wistful reminiscence to make very much of the reboot. For me, the ultimate Doctor will always be Paul McGann from the one-off attempted rekindling of the franchise in 1996, long before the Ecclestone/Piper era, by which time I was an insufferable postgrad student without a television. I remember seeing half an episode where a boy fell in love with a paving slab and it was weird. It feels really good to get that off my chest).

There are a couple of things I’ve failed to write up. In June I read a selection of canal poems for a charity event at the Market Bosworth Marina, a building so new my SatNav marooned me in the middle of a nearby field. The centre itself is an attractive wooden structure with a bar and performance space (huge windows, dramatic sunset) absolutely besieged by hundreds of well-kept houseboats. You really got the sense of a thriving community. I think it went okay. When you’re reading to a poetry audience they kind of take it as read that your every public appearance is going to be a manifestation of self-doubt and nervous energy. I’m never too sure how that goes over with a non-poetry audience but it’s too late to try to change who and what I am now. The night also featured performances by the Ambion Voices choir, ending on a song cycle, ‘Three Reflections on the Ashby Canal’ by Michael Dix. This was a witty, thoughtful and beautifully composed sequence of three pieces, tracing the history of the location from a working canal to an abandoned, derelict canal and finally a leisure canal. It compressed several history books into a miniaturised musical, and I’m glad to have heard it.

A few weeks later I had the opportunity to go on Saturday Live and get a postcard signed for my sister by the Rev Richard Coles. Live radio gives me the howling fantods, and I had stomach flu, but I think I managed not to say anything more incriminating than usual. I leaned into the whole poetry/towpaths parallel and read a couple of pieces. It was recorded at the Bottom Lock in Market Harborough and I took a wrong turn on the way and had to balance across an old lock gate which is the closest I’ve come to falling in during my tenure. It would have been a very attractive canal to fall into; you could describe it as being Moneted, but the effects would be the same as falling into any other body of water: discomfort and having to explain it to everyone.

I gave a final reading of most of the canal poems at the Poetry Café in Covent Garden on Thursday November 23rd. This was a joy, even if the combination of Lemsip and beer made me more than usually garrulous. It felt great to reflect on the whole experience and to read the poems as a kind of sequence. The Canal Poet Laureate is a unique role, and that’s down to the collaboration between the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust; I never had the sense that they wanted me to produce anything other than precisely my own thing, to follow my own inspiration even when it disappeared at a point where two canals meet and the path merges with the water. Oh, and hey, thanks also to you for reading these things and accompanying me along the way. Not very good at sincerity. Sorry. I mean it, though.

Canal Flora