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Field Notes on Eileen and The Undersong

Eileen & The Undersong is not a band. The Eileen is a narrow boat, a conversion of a former Birmingham Canal Navigation ‘open iron day boat’ and The Undersong is the arts project recorded on this website.

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What on earth, you might well ask, has a narrow boat got to do with a Derbyshire dale, a distant memory of childhood and an evolving arts project based on assemblage artworks and prose poetry? And, your question is absolutely legitimate, including an old boat in The Undersong mix does seem at best a tenuous addition. However, I like to think there are legitimate reasons why this 1903 remnant of long-gone industrial heritage floats close to the symbolic heart of the Project.

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It’s not to do with physically travelling back to Derbyshire by boat, that’s a practical impossibility, ever since the Butterley Tunnel collapsed and severed the Cromford Canal from the Erewash Canal and the rest of the inland waterway system.

No, much more the boats inclusion stems from the fact that it seems to nurture a particularly helpful attitude of mind – a travelling mindset – as wonderfully described in the Preface to Jean Sprackland’s poetic Strands. It’s a contained and focused mindset. It encourages a drilling down into specificity rather than ‘heading out’ towards wide horizons.

The boat contains my thinking and takes me towards a creative-forensic approach I think will be needed if I’m ever to do  justice to The Undersong.

A travelling mindset is characterised by curiosity and receptivity, an open-minded paying-attention-to, incidentally it’s also the way I approach boating, constrained as we often are by family circumstances we tend to travel only short distances in short bursts of activity, I take each of these splinters of boating experience and hold them up to the light – fascinated and curious.

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It’s this attentiveness to detail that’s providing me with an opportunity to embark on a remarkably vivid internal journey towards The Undersong. A patient approach that’s taking me closer to the people I suspect will be a key characters in the ‘Song.

Through using the boat I’ve also become aware of a particular bondedness I feel towards the Water Road, one that draws me closer to the gangers, the boatmen, the fishmongers and publicans of The Boat Inn, Cromford, which litter the census record of the Allen side of my family for over two hundred years. People such as my great, great grandfather John Allen (highlighted), who lived and worked at Cromford Wharf, the terminus of the Cromford Canal, which lies at the end of the Derwent Valley between Matlock and Cromford. When I’m on the water, and most comfortable in my own skin, steering the Eileen in a very real sense  bridges the temporal gap and brings me closer to these long dead relations.

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I wouldn’t claim that every journey undertaken on The Eileen will be directly about creativity or family, nor do the journeys necessarily have to generate material for a particular artworks or writing, often it’s simply good fun, but I do feel – as I have done since we bought her in 2011 – that she’s an integral part of the texture of what I do, part of the ensemble, the backdrop and back story.

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The Undersong is essentially a record of a journey of discovery. It’s a conceptual journey home and I’d like to do it, as far as is possible, with The Eileen.

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Over her long life The Eileen had many roles and many names. Studio Boat. Family Boat. Long Room. Narrow Boat. Barge. Open Iron, Five Plank. Day Boat. Joey. “That bloody old skip.” BCN 18686. The theatre boat. The Lavender Boat. A mongrel existence but nonetheless one that ensured The Eileen was identified as “meriting inclusion in the National Register of Historic Vessels of the United Kingdom”.

Her history is fascinating, arguably a mapping of the industrial and social evolution of the 20th C., and is one I’m painstakingly slowly piecing together. Notes and images on this tangential research are in the process of being loaded onto a separate Eileen Archive page which will be accessible HERE.

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A Rub-a-Dub-Dub Tub…

Slugs and snails and puppy dog’s tales that’s what little boats are made of…

Early summer morning on the Cut. A boat moving slowly. Thudderthudderthudder. Bass-beat exhaust of an engine singing. Adrift on the water path on a boat miles out at sea. A quixotic isolation just one inch from the land.

Ent-ish she articulates that moment when looking afresh and asking questions seems simply right.

A temporal brake, slowing things down sufficiently. Time to make better sense of the now and the back then, and how the back then bleeds into a future.

Standing on the counter, tiller in hand, travelling at walking pace, looking in detail at detail. Cutting the morning mist to learning new.

Afloat.

Reflective moments.

Stillness and silence or the companionable blether of diesel engine chuntering live beneath the hatch at your feet.

Get Ahead! Go optimistically.

The setting out, of a stall, on the journey.

The setting the world to rights.

The sett-ling down of disquiets and sett-led accounts.

The iron hull and long cabin. The outdoors then indoors. The in and out. En plein air achieving of balance with arms stretched wide. Deep breath. Glide. Flow. Feel. Free. Thinking.

We’re floating not sinking. That’s what a boat’s all about.

A form of time travel. Snail shell and family place.

A means to navigating the 21st Century. Even if we don’t ♫ ♩have all the time in the world ♩ ♫.

A friend once said that our souls travel at walking pace and that in our modern high speed world we run the risk of our bodies getting ahead of themselves. He thought travelling by narrow boat was a way to ensure that our bodies and soul re-connect, it was an idea that chimed with my wife’s desire to find a ‘boat-with-soul’, a non-conforming boat, something a little unique. It was an attractive idea – a boat-with-soul re-connecting our bodies to our tardy souls.

To go by boat. To tell our stories at walking pace. To sing our songs to the familiar rhythm of a slow, slow, so slow revving engine. That’s what a boat’s all about.

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In 2011 we felt our children, a daughter then aged 8 years and twin boys aged 3 years, were ready. It seemed the right time to introduce them to the water. To go inland. To take them closer to the nature of things.

Red Campion, Ragged Robin, Yellow Lily, Marsh Marigold. Pregnant bellies cast water-filled shadows. Sudden sounds break the silence. Scuttering, hysterical flappers, gostering ducks, self important hummer flies sudden and gone, so many sunlit dancing moments. Kingcup, Meadow Buttercup, Spearwort, Celandine. Through late summer’s dully green woody land and bleached bland meadowland. An ironic water route through drought? Bargeman’s Cabbage, Scurvy Grass, Agrimony, Birdsfoot Trefoil. Murmurings. Summer’s honeyed air, a season dustily overblown and heavily laden. Indian Balsam, Petty Spurge, Mallow, Milkwort. [from MID-LAND]

My wife C. and I would dream watery dreams. Talk of water parties, outdoor meals, a floating shack, a simple place, we’d plan, chat, scour style magazine, do the whole ‘Grand Design’ gallumphary; it’d be about sharing happiness; involving family & friends, seeking a quality of life we’d not found in London & all that centring on a boat-with-soul… Shared meals, tanned bellies, bald heads, white wine and scrambled egg. The captain’s cap hanging in a yellow ochre hideaway. Our tin drum and passion.

It was definitely an emotion-led and romantic kind of decision-making and had very little to do either common sense or logic. Beyond the connivances on money, consolidation loans, savings, a boat mortgage etc. the costs came in as possible, it’d be a gamble, but hell it’d also be the adventure we’d been looking for.

We took the plunge. Would the gamble work? I’d always boated alone and this was to be something new, something unexpected, this would be boating as a family, filling the tight confines of a narrow boat with noise and clutter, chaos and drama, the whole 9 yards of heartache and goster that is family life in all it’s raw and terrifying immediacy and beauty.

Years on, many tears, much laughter, the jury’s still out on whether the time and money could have been better spent, what’s for certain though is there are no regrets, The Eileen’s so much a part of this story and has remained the beating heart of the ‘Song.

Noon Hill, Sowe Common, Grimes and Smeeton past Brinklow, Huddlesford, Kings Orchard and Tarnhorn. Summer heat. enchanter’s nightshade rosebay willowherb hogweed vetch shoaling silver fish scuttering a natural affair, a running away at four miles an hour. Purple loosestrife angelica bindweed forget-me-not slow boating, chance meetings, summer’s days ending still warm skin taut from the breeze, swing me high swing me low I’m blessing the sun I’ve basked in it’s glow. [from MID-LAND]

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  • We're just about ready to restart the Long Trip down the Water Road.
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