A Long Road Lies Ahead

On Tuesday 23rd May we untied the ropes and cast off. We’re not sure when we’ll be back.

In this politically gloomy early Summer with the the country seemingly sleepwalking ever deeper into austerity and mean-spirited governance, the time feels right to take stock.

We’re intending to take time to have a bit of a look around. To use a canal term we’re going to ‘get ahead’ and returning to the water road we’re going to see where it takes us.

Since ill-health forced my unexpectedly early retirement from primary headship last Autumn I’ve agonised over many things, including the fate of Eileen our 1903 Birmingham Canal Navigation narrow boat. Could I, in my wildest dreams, expect to keep her? Could I, at a time of belt-tightening, justify the costs? Would the savings enable us to retain her? Well, the answer we’ve settled on, for now at least, is YES we can keep her. We’re planning to make more use of her by integrating her a little more fully into our busy and demanding family life.

If there’s a Grand Plan beneath our actions it’s a refreshingly vague and open-ended one (which is a bold new departure for an old control freak like me) and goes something like: let’s steer her towards the southern waterways and closer to our home base in London. I know, in the grand scheme of things, it might not strike you as much of a plan, but it’s more than enough for now.

We’ll be continuously cruising ie. moving on at least fortnightly through all seasons and as we go we’ll be using the boat in part as a family boat our base for sharing the experience of exploring the waterways together and as a studio boat an extension of my own art practice.

The long hours steering Eileen tend to be solitary, thoughtful and productive. It’s a forced inactivity. Steering a course you have to be  focused but not too focused. You may not be able to let go of the elum (or helm) but your mind is freed enough to journey far and wide. It’s creative thinking time. And, it’ll produce poetry.

The boat can be an engine of creativity in that it can provide a time when light and language do combine and make sense. When the heatbeat rhythm of the engine beneath my feet can mark out a ‘thinking beat’. The heartbeat of the boat encourages conscious drift. A floating away.

It’s also a place richly woven with memories of other journeys, image over image, layer after layer and it provides the very best point of connection with those of my family who, over 100 years ago, worked the old Cromford Canal.

In my mind, the activities of mark-making/writing on the one hand and inlanding/boating on the other are two sides of the same creative coin.

Boat life encourages listening, dwelling upon and enjoying the moment and the history; it privileges the senses and gets me outside; it challenges me to lose sight of myself for a while and become a open-eyed castaway one inch from the land.

This will be a journey that encourages me to follow my nose. It’ll also be a chance to slow things down and I hope it’ll be a chance to heal and find a bit of peace.

The journey could be called A Story of Slow as I’m hoping it’ll provide time to savour the seasons, silence, simplicity, and vitally, each other. For now though it carries the working title The Long Road.

Knowing our messed-up seasons I’m sure it’ll also provide opportunities to gather people around the stove and provide opportunities to talk and re-tell tall tales. Who knows we might even make some sense out of the kerfuffle of the present!

It’s time to get on.

ps. more on the creative connections between the boat and The Undersong project can be read by clicking HERE.



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  • The 'Long Road Log' - a fortnightly narrow boating blog...
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  • Current reading: 'Doing the Same in English' by Maurice Scully, 'Writings on Art' by Per Kirkeby, 'The Last London' by Iain Sinclair & 'RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR' by Philip Hoare...
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