Monday, 7 September 2009

Canal Routes

The bus pulls up with a jolt and I disembark into the half-light of the terminus. Outside our kid (1) is already waiting under the jet-stream sky, his hair greyer than the last time I saw him.

We have The Conversation:
ME: So what do you want to do?
HIM: Dunno (2), what do you want to do?
ME: Dunno

I look up at the sky and the black storm clouds have lifted. Not half an hour ago when I set off it was looking like all the rain gods from mythology had got together for a party: now the sky looks as innocent as a young boy standing by a broken piece of glass with a slingshot in his pocket and a whistle on his lips.

We decide, after some standing around prevaricating, that we will catch the train to an area just outside of the nearest big city and take a four mile walk along the canal back into town: the thinking being that if the weather deteriorates we can make a run for it, or else buy a regional day-saver and just change our plans as required.

And so we walk across the town centre, slipping through the cracks inbetween the tourists, asking the usual standard questions about work, friends and life. Our kid has been working on some songs for a new album and I ask him if he is doing an instrumental cover-version of some popular tune using the pan-pipes sound on his keyboard. This has become something of a running joke between us since I suggested the possibility of Smells Like Teen Spirit the country-and-western years. He didn’t take me seriously on that – so far.

We buy a day-saver that leaves us with a ten minute wait for the first train of the day that we can use. Everything at the station seems to be military grey, with only a fresh red warning line across the safe-edge of the platform to show that anything has been changed since the 1970s. Power-lines trail overhead and the emotionless voice of the pre-recorded station announcer cuts regularly through the noise of the nearby traffic.

As we travel further away from home the sky changes again with the scenery, turning from city-scape to rural, clear to cloudy and back again until we are left with a grumbling sky that feels ready to shed its woes.

At the new station everything is the same purple as a chocolate wrapper and the smells from the nearby factories hits us almost instantaneously. The canal runs directly alongside the train track and we turn straight out onto the towpath (3), ducking and diving to avoid the joggers, the cyclists and the puddles.

Our kid falls behind quite a bit, so I do my best to walk at his pace and to stop and take pictures with my camera phone (4) so that he can take a run and catch me up. Most people walk slower than I do and today I am no different, keeping my eye on the clouds ahead. They are still speaking to me of imminent rain, but we seem to be directly under a gap and I am keen to keep it that way.

The canal is mostly empty today, with only a few souls mad enough to risk the weather, but we pause and make way for a marauding gang of ducks and exchange polite hellos with the occasional cagouled figure who passes in the other direction. Unusually for a canal the route is fairly straight, sticking to the side of the train tracks as the bridges rise and fall in arks of brickwork.

You can still see the echoes of the industrial past that required this network, though most has been flattened or turned into luxury apartments. These days the canal is mostly used for leisure and there are signs by the power-lines warning that there is no fishing allowed here – not that you can imagine what kind of killer fish could survive in amongst the industrial murk and bicycle frames. Gaps in between the brick walls offer glimpses of a world of professions long since departed, concrete floors where skater-boys practice their tricks the only sign that any building was ever here.

The wind stirs and moves the clouds, exposing brief fragments of sunlight and rippling the water. The light catches on the waves and shatters. Our kid catches up again as I pause to take a picture and I point out the high tower of a nearby University. The clock strikes the hour just as we are plunged back out of the wilderness and into the built-up city. Here the ghosts of the past are replaced by the prosperity of the moment. Themed pubs and tourist attractions float by on either side as we walk and a builder wades out into the water to secure a temporary blockade.

It’s just past midday when we hit the city centre, so we decide to head across and get something to eat before embarking on another pilgrimage. This one is ten minutes away, but we approach with some trepidation as the last time I was nearby the location seemed to be closing down.

We head across the city and out again, crossing the endless streams of traffic. Underneath the arches of the train bridge we catch fragments of a forgotten world that seems to exist almost hidden amongst the neon lights and the grandeur, with small businesses existing almost against all hope and with each one that fails and displays only boarded-up windows I feel a little pang of sorrow for someone’s shattered dream.

So it is that with a sigh of relief we see the shop doors open and we head inside. Downstairs everything is in darkness and it takes us a moment for our eyes to adjust. The building stretches out at the back under the train arch, becoming cavernous at the back where the bass guitars lurk ominously, strings waiting to be tweaked. The wall of guitars is just as impressive as ever and we examine each, deciding that the ones with no price tag are clearly there to tell the casual viewer “if you have to ask: you can’t afford”

Someone is trying out a guitar, for once not playing Stairway To Heaven or anything by the Beatles, distort on with a sound that Eric Clapton would kill for. We head back up the stairs before anyone can ask us if we need help and we are forced to admit that we have no money and take a turn around the keyboard section, where our kid tries out a few of the sounds.

Out on the street the wind is gathering again and we stand outside the place where guitars go to die and have The Conversation again – should we call it a day or make some more use of our day ticket? I allow myself to be persuaded that we should catch another train, just for the sheer pleasure of travelling from a to b.

We arrive at the station just in time, the train doors nearly closing in my face as we attempt to board. The station master, much like the sky, seems to take pity on me and waves me onboard. I sit back in my seat and listen to the sound of the wheels.

1) our kid – northern slang term for younger sibling. Mostly used in areas like Manchester and Liverpool, but popularised since the advent of BritPop and Oasis in the 1990s.
2) Dunno – lazy way to say “I don’t know”
3) Towpath – when the canals were originally built the barges were still towed by horses. Most modern routes along canals follow the old towpaths which have been greatly improved and renovated in the last ten years.
4) The Fun Police here are making it very difficult to put pictures on the internet – but I will attempt to put a collection of canal photos on line soon (probably over at Houses In Motion).


Anonymous said...

"now the sky looks as innocent as a young boy standing by a broken piece of glass with a slingshot in his pocket and a whistle on his lips."

Brathtaking writing, my friend. I feel like a tag-along, vicariously embarking on an endless adventure . . .

the watercats said...

another lovely escapade encapturated in type! i'm hoping this comment makes it aboard your blog, the fun police here are being twats too!... It really annoys me when guitars aren't priced, I always ask, and every time, wished I'd learnt some scales and mindblowing riffs so I could justify trying them out... Country and western nirvana sounds right up my street! (have you heard of a band called hayseed dixie?.. ) :-D

Argent said...

I liked the "innocent as a young boy" bit too! I almost never try out instruments in shops, cos I always think I sound rubbish. I could visualise the rainy day atmosphere really well on this piece. The Fun Police never give up do they?

Roxanne said...

loved this description, Pixie-Man. It's a real flavor for your life - one can't get that from a picture or even a regular description. It's a SLICE. By the way, reading your entry below - how many different lives have you led anyway?? so many hidden talents!

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

cheek of god - glad you enjoyed. these can be fun to write too y'know!

Watercats - i have not heard of them, but i will try and look them up some time

Argent - darn those fun police. Grrr

Roxanne - that's me all over - i like to try everything, but can't focus on anything: jack of all trades and all that...

BTW - this was supposed to be called Route Canals, which would have been even funnier: but you can't always be right

English Rider said...

I feel as though I have had a satisfying day right along side you. Thank you.

Anne-Marie said...

Beautiful writing, Hungry Pixies. You are such a great writer of non-fiction. As other commenters said, I felt like I was along for the ride.

Michael said...

Nice mix of fiction and non-fiction. Almost seamless. I would like to see you do more dialogue some day.

pohanginapete said...

Yes, what the others said. It captures a powerful mood, a feel, as well as showing these almost-forgotten, still-just-surviving places, and still managing to incorporate the marvellous starved-pixie humour. Thanks for such a great read.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

English - thanks. These are fun to write, but i do try to give variation!

Hi Anne-Marie: good to see you here again and glad you enjoyed

Michael - dialogue eh? I will try and think about that - truth is i'm generally better at written stuff than talking: gives more time to think of something clever!

Pete - I always feel that mixture of sadness and pleasure on a canal: because those almost forgotten places are still there, but it's alll going slowly...