Nancy’s blog: The Plastic Arts

Nancy writes ‘When an email announcing a short season of events about plastic dropped into my inbox from Barge Fiodra, I was eager to learn more. I took the bus to Hackney Wick on a sunny Friday evening and walked towards the Olympic Park to join an activity to rid the River Lea Navigation of plastic waste. On the riverbank the team who run Moo Canoes (nice rhyme, guys – now I’m on the hunt for Yak Kayaks) were handing out buoyancy aids and protective gloves to an enthusiastic group.

photo by Moira Jenkins

I spent a happy hour on the Lea in a canoe with Bob, Fiodra’s skipper, and Helen, picking up bottles, fragments of styrofoam, cans and cigarette butts. Or rather, I paddled while Helen and Bob picked up the litter – I was tempted to grab the odd piece of flotsam but someone had to ensure the canoe didn’t capsize as they eagerly reached out to hook a crisp packet or carrier bag as it floated past. A litter pick is a good way to see the river itself, as well as what’s floating on it. The colourful graffiti under the Lea’s bridges glowed gently in the dusk, a reminder that not all the traces humans leave behind them are unwanted.

We had brief exchanges with people sipping beer and gin in the fashionable bars along the bank (many of them thought we needed to be rescued, and we had to explain that we didn’t); we enjoyed longer conversations with the boat owners, who were delighted to see us disposing of the dross knocking against their keels. None, of course, were under the illusion that this was a permanent answer to the plastic problem. Everyone knew more rubbish would soon wash in to take the place of the bits and pieces in our bags.

At sunset we gathered in Barge Fiodra’s galley to watch the recently released film Albatross . Many readers will already have come across the director Chris Jordan’s devastating photographs of bird skeletons, surrounded by the plastic the creatures consumed and choked on. The new film is a heart-breaking insight into the plight of the wildlife on Midway Island in the North Pacific Ocean. It opens with a quotation from Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner: ‘He loved the bird that loved the man / Who shot him with his bow.’ There was not a dry eye on the barge as the final credits rolled. How, I wondered aloud to a friend, can we even try to move forward in the face of such overwhelming environmental damage? It’s hard to find any cause for optimism, but the evening certainly convinced me of the power of the arts in spreading the word about such urgent issues.

After my experiences on the Lea I was able to finish a couple of poems I’d been writing on the theme of plastic pollution. Thanks to Barge Fiodra for their warm welcome and creative programming – you can check out their diverse upcoming events around the canal network here.

photo by Andrew Reid Wildman

Later in June, I was invited by Hidden Depths Canal Cruises to experience the Islington Tunnel. Two-hundred years old, the Tunnel stretches for a deep, dank and silent mile beneath one of the busiest parts of London. It crosses under the A1 at Angel, yet remains unknown to most who use the capital’s roads: as there’s no towpath, you can’t walk or cycle through, and even small craft such as kayaks are forbidden to enter… So I was grateful for the offer of a ride from Hidden Depths on ‘Lapwing’, a beautiful ‘wooden hire top boat’ formerly of Willow Wren’s fleet.

‘Lapwing’ retraced the route past Camley Street Natural Park and along the Regent’s Canal that Pierre Tremblay and I had cycled in February. Then, the waterway had a subdued, wintery calm. Now there were roses blooming in the gardens; small children wearing bright hula leis waved to us from the towpath, and the boat’s bunting danced merrily in the breeze. I was happy to be on the water instead of on wheels – for one thing, it was easier to take notes. The weather was so warm that the cool interior of the tunnel came as a relief. As ‘Lapwing’ chugged in to the narrow entrance, we surprised a mallard who almost clipped our heads with its wings as it made a break for the light. The 20 minutes I spent in the tunnel was one of the most rewarding (and slightly terrifying) experiences of my time as Canal Laureate so far – needless to say, I’m working on a new poem…’

photo by Nancy Campbell