New Year Retrospective

The early years

There has always been a political edge to my attitude to canals from the earliest moments of contact and it still lurks in my unconscious response to much that is going on today over forty years later.

It wasn’t politics with a very big P but it certainly was to do with a policy towards living life and working for a responsible living. It was a hazily left-leaning feeling, showing respect and solidarity with the workers and little sympathy for the workings of capitalism but I can now see with the benefits of more hindsight than I need that it was jumbled up with some rather more difficult-to-define values. My background was southern, non industrial, not rich but OK, pushed through a grammar school that I disliked fairly intensely, but one that hindsight also tells me was probably good for me. But the big influences were Art and Bohemianism, and the two at that time seemed inextricably linked. You couldn’t like one without the other, and both seemed very attractive to a post-war teenager looking for an alternative to the parental generation’s values. The old fashioned bohemianism of the Paris left bank was evolving into the ‘beat’ generation, and with the addition of popular music by the popular press into the headlines, the much vilified ‘beatniks’ were born. I was there, and we were all quite nice most of the time. There were a few old time anarchists amongst us who thought that pulling everything down would allow a new society to emerge and flourish but most of us just wanted things to change for the better—more freedom, more creativity, less materialism and less militarism. Oh, and a lot more love of humanity please-- ban the bomb! Much of this was in line with the idealism of socialism at the time so one naturally aligned with the left as a structured way forward, although at heart some of us were just looking for a simpler and more satisfactory way of life, a more ‘holistic lifestyle’ as later pundits would put it.

And then I discovered canals. Bear in mind that as a southern lad I had no experience of proper inland canals—barely knew that they existed in fact. But my interest in art, and in folk art in particular (the proper art of the working class) led me to descriptions of English narrow boats in the Midlands adorned with painted flowers and castle pictures. Whilst I hardly believed a word of it I felt I had to pilgrim north to see for myself. What I found there completely bowled me over, and continues to amaze me to this day. Here were the pretty paintings all right but completely integrated into a way of life that in itself seemed to be thoroughly enmeshed with the reality of working life, a transport system for the sort of real heavy industry that I had only read about. Pow! This was a revelation indeed and it suddenly seemed that a lot of the answers to the lifestyle questions were floating in front of me. Here was a complete society living in small, beautiful living spaces moving huge weights around in a gentle and non-intrusive way. Here was a historical traditional way of life being lived on a network of secret water roads, still doing real work. Magic-- I really wanted to be part of it. But how to learn, how to get into it, how to become accepted in what was clearly a tight, proud trade society? Well, the obvious way for a budding boat painter seemed to be by way of the pleasure boats that were colonising the canals at the time. Perhaps that was a way of earning a living and staying near the real thing until I could become a proper boatman.

It saddens me now to look back and to see just how slow on the uptake I was, how blind to the obvious. It was all so new and interesting that I saw what I wanted to see. Because the traditional boating life had obviously been going on for so long it seemed naturally bound to go on for ever into the future too. Times were admittedly a bit difficult for the canals, but surely everybody would soon see how sensible they were, how rich and satisfying the lifestyle was and how environmentally sound? Surely all these truths were obvious and it was only a matter of time before all right thinking intelligent folk saw it too? In the meantime I would work in the pleasure boat business, confident that all new converts to the waterway crusade would obviously see things in exactly the same enlightened way that I and my contemporaries did. I was not alone in this wet-behind-the-ears innocence although I was rather slower to see through it than most. There was quite an influx of idealistic young incomers in the 1960s wanting to live the canal life, wanting to combine satisfying, useful work with a colourful lifestyle, to live a romantic dream. And when things were going well it was wonderful. Working narrow boats efficiently takes skill and practice and an empathy with water and momentum that is almost spiritual, a cross between bullfighting and heavy duty ballet. The life is lived in a floating painted sculpture that has been honed by two centuries of boat society to a small miracle of utilitarian beauty, perfectly suited to its function. Add some stylish theatrical costume like bonnets and braided braces and it is little wonder that it appealed to so many young bohemians in those grey days. It was really an unheralded piece of what would later be known as performance art.

Meanwhile the pleasure boats continued to colonise the canals and multiply, and the ordinary old fashioned business ethics of the market place have become increasingly important to the retention and sustainability of the waterways. Bit by bit the term ‘commercial’ waterway has changed its meaning from a transport system to a leisure industry, from working for a proper living to servicing the needs of hire boats and holiday makers, supplying toilets and new steel boats to people with spare time and spare money. Yes, this business intervention has saved the waterways from closure, but on a dark midwinter day of introspection one worries about what’s been lost along the way, the compromises, the loss of historic buildings and equipment, the loss of the continuity of skills, the loss of atmosphere, the loss of that inspiring romantic vision. One worries about the politics, about the unrestrained power of a capitalist leisure business to change the waterways to suit itself, aided by a management that is besotted with the concept of financial independence, of ‘sustainability.’ But some of us are still here and still trying to hold on to the values that seemed important then. Are we in the vanguard still, or just fighting a rearguard action, doomed to failure?

Tony Lewery
The Brow, Ellesmere
December 2004


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