Canal Song – a new film poem

Welsh canal lovers: here’s a beautiful new filmpoem by poet Jonathan Edwards and filmmaker Chris Morris filmed over the summer above the Monmouth and Brecon canal.

Jonathan writes ‘When he was a little boy, my dad used to play truant, spend a day ‘mwtchin off’ as it’s called around these parts. Some days, he would do what boys of his age were supposed to do with a spare day, and hop on the local train as it sped through the village, clinging on to the side as far as the next village up the valley, without a single thought for the future lives of me and my sister he was carrying with him. Then he would walk like a gunslinger down the roads of that foreign land, terrifying pigeons with his lengthening shadow, before strolling back, pulling faces at lampposts and all the astonished or whitewashed terraced windows.

Some days though, him and his best friend Big Ron, who’s now 78 and living in some sort of bliss in Malvern, would do something more sedate. Filching the old tin bath from its place by the fire, they’d head to the canal bank, set it afloat, jump in and set sail. Dodging round quacking ducks and venomous algae, to the wolf whistles of birds in the overhanging trees, they headed, grim-faced as pirates, to their goal – the field of apple trees on the opposite bank. Through trial and error, they had worked out the exact maximum weight of apples they could get in their boat without it sinking on the way back. And this was important, because the farmer who owned the field, wellington’d and eighty, but unusually sprightly, would often appear, shaking his fist at them as they sped off in their getaway bathtub. I don’t know exactly what he shouted after them, but in this version he’s going to shout this: ‘I’m gonna get you one day, you pesky kids!’ In fairness, he could have ambled down to the next canal bridge, and crossed in plenty of time to meet my father on the opposite bank as he splashed towards him, but that would hardly have been fair. My father and Big Ron were paddling for all they were worth, and in their pockets and the bottom of the boat a harvest of apples glittered like bullion.

Such stories were much in my head when I received the commission to write a poem in praise of the Monmouth and Brecon canal, and began to walk again its banks and its bridges, to see what it was up to. The canal is a place of childhood, of my own as well as my father’s, and I was keen to get all the memories it stores into my poem.

Those days catching tadpoles before throwing them back, the epic and endless Sunday excursions along its banks, to the North Pole or the next village over, or the arc of our dog Tom Daley-ing it through the air to belly-flop mid-stream, splashing an unsuspecting duck to the applause of the judges. The house I grew up in backed onto the canal, and it meant that a step or two away was a world completely other from the glorious but ultimately sooty village I lived in. Weirder, wilder, filled with strange noises, booming silences, views of the village which caused you to see it or your life as something over there, it was playground, zoo, it was something beyond you, a home you were trespassing in.

I began, as I’ve tended to do, these past couple of years, by letting the canal speak for itself. I’ve liked it, of late, when bridges and lions, corner shops and towns, have spoken poems to me in their voices, and all I’ve had to do is write them down, like some sort of court reporter or secretary, then wonder if I could honestly take the fee if anyone published the poem, as if it had anything to do with me. It turned out that the canal, when it spoke, was much concerned with its history, deeply aware of its industrial past, of the horses which clattered along it, blowing smoke or effort from their mouths all winter, like working men with tight roll-ups pressed between their lips. But it was also keen to celebrate itself as it is now, all that it is to joggers and amblers, to lycra’d or huffing bicyclists, to yearning or adulterous courting couples, to those ducks there, with all their reflections and their ideas above their station, preening and plumping, arching their necks to impersonate swans. ‘Huh-hah,’ said the canal, ‘I still got it, baby.’ And the court reporter sat on his stool or his tree-stump, and nodded, and was.

Soon though, other parts of the poem came flowing towards me like driftwood, and the thing expanded, picked up pace, took on a life of its own. My canal walks spread across weekends in spring, and I was so taken by the wildlife of the canal. The ducklings moving in their mother’s slipstream, like Formula One race cars or the carriages of a train, but unable, quite, to keep with it, veering across the water the way toddlers might across the carpet. Meanwhile, their dad was here and there, at a safe distance, his eyes everywhere, always looking for the best perspective so he could immediately see and eliminate any threats to his family, edgy as the man on the grassy knoll.

Something else was the heron which showed up when it felt like it. You could be walking along to the crunch of your footsteps, thinking about football or troubles, and look up, and there it was, on the bank, so still, erecting a statue to itself. Joggers and racing bicyclists gave up their step counts and stopwatches, gathered round, turned themselves into an audience, muttering the name of a god they did not believe in under their breath. With that, the heron arched its back and was off, making the ground into something down there and grace into something no human can ever truly possess, the shadow of its wings beating the towpath to the rhythm of the word Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.

The poem, though, and the memories and life crammed into it, have only been part of the story of this project. On an overcast but gorgeous day in September, birds above the canal had to compete for elbow-room or airspace with a drone flying over, recording footage, for the film that will bring the poem to life. As yet, I have no notion what the film will look or sound like, but what I know is that, if you put a camera – hell, put your eyes – anywhere along this canal bank, you are going to see beauty and wonder.

My own part in the film-making was small; I was thrilled that Chris Morris of Falmouth University, a brilliant film-maker who deeply loves this part of the world, could handle this side of things. There was just one shot he wanted of me, standing in a gloomy underpass, my back to the camera. Despite all of my Hollywood training, my many years of deep schooling in the method acting tradition, I have a strong hope that I will be cut from the final edit. But as I stood there, on that Saturday towpath, like a firing squad victim or a shivering lemon, waiting for the word Action!

at which point I would continue to Just stand still, please, for God’s sake, just a second longer! – it would be too much, wouldn’t it, to say what I blinked and saw there, a little further along the canal. Half sunk, half buried by the greenery overspilling the bank, but there, wasn’t it, surely, shining in the afternoon sunlight. I blinked again. That curved, that hidden, that gleaming, that rusting, that drowning or yonks-old rim of a bathtub.’

Ed Stone was the drone pilot responsible for the bird’s eye views, the camera man was George Morris and the editor Edie Morris.

Canal Song – a film poem by Jonathan Edwards and Christopher Morris from The Poetry Society on Vimeo.

Canal Song – a film poem by Jonathan Edwards and Christopher Morris (with subtitles) from The Poetry Society on Vimeo.