The first update from our new Canal Laureate, Nancy Campbell.
‘This month I’ve been exploring the past and present of London’s canals.
For the last couple of years friends have been encouraging me to visit London Canal Museum, as it has a permanent exhibit about the ice trade (I’ve just finished writing a non-fiction book on ice). Once all the capital’s ice was brought in by barge, to satisfy the Victorian lust for icecream as well as the refrigeration needs of butchers and fishmongers. The idea of all that melting ice being transported on water is very poignant. What a cold cargo! The museum with its dramatic ice wells and images of horse-drawn ice carts formed a perfect bridge between the two subjects, ice and water, for me.
I was keen to see the museum’s old films, such as The Barge Fellows, a grainy documentary from 1925, as film is going to be the medium through which I’ll realise a poem located on London’s waterways.
After the museum I visited Greg in Narrowboat Dolly moored at Battlebridge Basin for much-needed refreshment, and we chatted about some of the books I’ve been reading about life on the canals past and present. The Grand Union Canal Carrying Company employed women in wartime, and Maidens’ Trip (1948) Emma Smith’s account of her first journey from Limehouse out of London with a cargo of steel was an early winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. ‘Hands in pockets, nose blue in the wind, eyes narrowed against the darting sunlight, she gazed ahead and rashly dreamed of Birmingham…’
Emma’s resourcefulness is echoed by Helen Babbs, whose book Adrift (2016) is an insight into contemporary life as a constant cruiser on London’s canals. She writes beautifully but not naively about life on the ‘surprising’ and ‘shape-shifting’ water and how cities need such spaces, ‘old and imperfect, littered but alive.’ Babbs describes the Regent’s Canal as ‘a hairline fracture along London’s x-axis; a thin fissure in a valley of brick, glass and stone.’ From her, I learn that it’s officially called The Cut ‘a name that expresses its slim shape, its depth, its certain tang… This industrial gash, this wet wound, was sliced into the earth by hand.’
When I lived in London a decade ago, it was the eastern boroughs I knew best: I often walked the Hertford Union canal that runs past Victoria Park, and the stretch of the Lee navigation by Springfield Park. However, for the new poem, inspired by these two books and my afternoon in the museum, I’m taking to the Regent’s Canal with the Canadian artist Pierre Tremblay. I met Tremblay in Reykjavik, where he was filming and I was studying traditional fishing songs, and we later collabor ated on a filmpoem about swimming which was first screened in an empty swimming pool at RUBIX in Toronto in 2016.
This time we intend to stay out of the water, completing our journey by bicycle. (But many thanks to Jasper Winn, the current Canal & River Trust writer-in-residence, for reminding me of this scheme by Y/N Studio to get people swimming in Regent’s Canal.)
Tremblay and I begin our journey at noon on Friday 16 February from Paddington Basin, calling in at the Canal & River Trust offices in Little Venice, before continuing towards Limehouse. Keep an eye out for a pair on bicycles if you are on or near the canal! The Cut will be screened at Barge Fiodora (moored at Merchant Square, W2 1AZ) on 15 March as part of a festival of events celebrating life on the canals.’