On a drizzly summer morning, stick in hand, heels dragging in the mud of the towpath, I watch the ropes swinging off the bollards. Backwards, forwards. Towards me, and away. My feet stuck in leaky plastic boots, muck-dulled life jacket zipped so far up under my chin that I can hardly breathe. A duck swims by the bank, darting in and out from the corrugated steel.
The water around the boat is churning, stirred by the deep-throat engine hidden in its box of a hull. I watch for my father’s black baseball cap, bobbing up at the stern. His head, puffing steam into the cold air, is followed by the shining brass steering stick. This he fixes in place and disappears back below.
I take my stick, an indiscriminate limb of a tree, and plant it in the mud. I put both hands around the top, both feet around the bottom, and press it into the canal bank with all my weight. It stands, leaning in a puddle, after I have clambered back into the hollowed prow. Ropes are coiled, thrown up on the roof. Mucky dishwater sloshes out of the hatch, adding to the puddles on the path. The engine roars into second gear, and we launch our boat further down the Birmingham canal.
In medieval navigation, sailing marks were raised at estuaries or further down rivers, to give sailors a sense of where they were in relation to the land. These could be church spires and mounds, seen from far out at sea, or sometimes wooden staves stuck in the mud. Some medieval trading sites in Scandinavia are thought to have hung grotesque masks on these staves so that approaching ships could tell the difference between one place of exchange and the next.
Reading about sailing marks (an unexpected turn in my PhD), makes me think of my childhood voyages down the muddy canals of North West England and Wales. Travelling at the breakneck pace of two- to five-miles-per-hour, we would set out from Stoke and go as far as we could before we had to turn back, constrained by school holidays and rental tariffs. On the way, each mooring site became a place we did not want to leave. Once the tow ropes were fastened to the bank, through heavy iron hoops, our existence was fastened to that fifty-yard stretch of field, park, or woodland. Leaping from the gunwale, we raced off to scout out our new home for the night, finding places to run, hide, or sometimes building palaces out of rotting tree limbs and ferns. Recognising these places on the way back, however much we felt we had belonged to them, was always impossible. That must be the bit of woodland where we built our fort. Or, isn´t that where Dad set fire to the towpath as well as the sausages? You could never be certain, and once a place had been left behind it seemed to have stopped existing.
I remember being obsessed with sticks – this fascination extended to the other children, my siblings, and friends, whoever I was travelling with on the boat. Some piece of tree or other persistently hid up on the roof, or in the engine room. In this way, craftily tucked into the corners, pieces of the lost mooring places came with us down the water. Shuffling around on the towpath to keep out of the way of the waking boat, I poked sticks into the mud in boredom, standing them in puddles, in a way I imagine now to be like sailing marks. I would sit on the roof of the boat as it chugged drowsily along, keeping watch for those sticks in the canal bank, the markers of the way we had come.
Sticks in the canal bank never stay put. It only takes the kick of a boot, the jaws of an eager dog, or a fall of heavy rain to slip them into the brown water. There, they join tangles of branches and reeds in slowly spinning islands cast by the eddies of passing barges. The boats keep moving, lethargically, pulling the viscous surface of the water with them. Tugged along in this oily, plastic soup, my sailing marks cannot hold all those little pieces of home in place.
10th March, 2019 – Spring Term