Tell me the truth about boats

Boating the high seas: photo by Dru Marland

Poetry is about expressing the inexpressible – trying to tell the truth, trying to tell each other about the great moments of our lives. It can feel like a clumsy tool to tackle such precision work, but for those of us who can’t make music, it’s the best we have. For me, it’s a way to communicate something of my life on the canals – and that’s harder than I expected. Writing about the failures of love, or about family, or work or any other experience, seems to demand less than this great enterprise of telling the truth about boats. I feel exposed. That’s a sign that I am on the right track.

Writing about canals makes me confront my own ignorance too. For instance…. boats? Don’t ask me. I knew nothing when I came to canal boating thirteen years ago, and I know even less now. I can tie a bowline and a tugman’s hitch, but I still can’t tighten my own stern gland (don’t ask). I know about half of our 2000 miles of canal, by personal experience; I know a lot of pubs called The Navigation. I also know that it’s a damn silly idea to steer a narrowboat up the Bristol Channel. But on Wednesday, I did it anyway.

The Bristol Channel is a terrifyingly fast, complex body of water which rises and falls with up to 7m of tide – the third highest tidal range in the world. It vomits and ingests millions of tons of silt every day. Its currents are as rich and mean as a Russian plutocrat. The Severn, which discharges into the channel, is the wickedest river in Britain. It wants to drown you, and falls over itself to do so in rills and torrents of water. Every now and then its own eagerness overtakes it and the Severn Bore surges upstream, a counter-tidal wave that drags trees and foolish canoeists in its wake. It reminds me of Stevie Smith’s poem, River God, about another malevolent river.

A narrowboat is utterly unsuited to travel these waters. It has no keel – the helpful, stabilising underwater blade that stops a sea-going vessel from toppling over. My 67ft boat is a steel box which normally sits on three feet of water. It is no more manoeuvrable than a cornflake box. Also, it’s my home. If the river wins, I lose everything.

Nonetheless, I made the trip from Portishead to Sharpness this week. Why? Because it’s the way home, to my winter mooring. Because it’s forward, and not back. Because, in the process of making it, I have made new friends and remembered the value of old ones. I will blog more about it very soon. I am writing new poems and will be sharing them as soon as I can.

But today, I wanted to share some of the poems that have been coming in from you. The poems you’re sending are wonderful – telling not only of the adventurous Bristol Channel moments, but moments of tranquillity or of distress in a quiet reflective space. They are place-specific, domestic or grand. It is a real pleasure to read the poems coming in. Thank you. There will be more appearing soon – these first few simply reflect my own experience of the canals, often in places that I know well myself.

Please keep sending them to us at [email protected] – they may appear here, or in a print anthology if we get enough – and I want to see the best names in contemporary poetry, plus a host of new names, appearing here.

Oxford Canal
Sarah Watkinson

You board at Lower Heyford
don’t quite get to Banbury.
There and back takes a whole week-end.
You won’t mind, you’ll soon abandon timetables and goals,
route planners, maps, clocks and choices
to the engine’s steady underwater pulse
and life between parallel lines.

You move on a lane of water
round hillsides at the pace of a horse walking
float under roads, through the O
of a tunnel and its upside-down twin
lift the balanced bridges, open and close locks, enjoy
the real and simple physics of it all

and when you stop and moor, stepping out
into damp dawns,  you encounter empty fields, cow-parsley
or at midnight, glow-worms in the long grass at Aynho.

Megan Watkins

At the tunnel mouth we lie, where the water pools
and the ducks won’t paddle. He introduces himself often
and guesses my name, his generator runs forgotten
and he sings loudly along while I’m trying to describe
the difference between starling and blackbird song.
Under the overgrown tree and down the overgrown stairs,
locked out of Angel, locked in with six bottles of wine
and a bottle of whisky, I saw him once away from the boats
unable to walk on land. He goes to sleep with the candles lit,
every day his lucky day, every morning he asks who I am
and tells me his name again.

Flaming June
Alan Buckley

but this is a winter spate. Our forty-footer’s
hurried down the Thames from Swinford reach.
At King’s we steer to the lock, then slide into
its chamber, moonishly still, a semi-colon;
the keeper sets his back to the balance beam,
captures us in a pause of cropped grass,
flowers bedded in squares. Behind a screen
of trees, the feral river charges the weir

then bursts back into view, dark and foaming.
It surges hard, pummels the lower gates.
The man strolls past us, a limited god
in short sleeves, sturdy trousers. You’ll need
to give it some. Keep both hands on the tiller.
He spins the sluice-wheels. Gently, we descend.

And finally, click to see Caroline Cook’s poem Towpath – we had to attach it as a PDF because the formatting didn’t survive in our blog!