by John Morrison


77: Shifting Sands

The river that runs through Milltown served the textile mills for generations. But these days it's a bit of an embarrassment - like the elderly aunt at a family reunion who sits in a corner and dribbles. If a river is a convincing metaphor for life then the inescapable assumption - for those who gaze down into its less-than-limpid waters - is that life is grey, sluggish and polluted. The river doesn't flow... it oozes. If you see a fish jump, it's probably just trying to catch its breath.

For many years our canal, too, seemed to have its great days in the past. Apart from the occasional shipment of Tarot cards or patchouli oil, there has been next to no commercial traffic on the waterway for almost half a century. It's a shame. After all, the canal offered pollution-free transport long before we realised there was any other kind.

What a massive undertaking it was to drive a canal across the South Pennines. The first sod was lifted two hundred years ago and just five years later - Christmas 1798 - the first craft crossed the Pennine watershed into Lancashire. The towpath was lined with cheering, flag-waving crowds - happy, no doubt, to escape the horrors of a family Christmas for a few hours.

As the canal gave new impetus to the wool and cotton trades, laden narrow-boats - as many as fifty a day - negotiated the locks through Milltown, on their way to Manchester and the port of Liverpool. The canal handled most of the valley's commercial traffic, but only until George Stephenson, no less, drew up plans to build the first railway across the Pennines.

By the time Queen Victoria had ascended to the throne, the canal was in slow decline. By the time of her death, only non-urgent cargo (such as tax refunds and publishers' royalty cheques) was still being carried by canal. There were no crowds, in 1937, to witness what was effectively the demise of the canal as a commercial thoroughfare. The only person who watched that coal-barge glide through Milltown, at a funereal pace, was Town Drunk's grandfather, standing on a bridge with a bottle of porter in his hand. And by the next morning he'd forgotten the incident entirely.

The canal silted up; the lock-gates rotted; an air of decay and dereliction descended onto the waterway. It's only in recent years that our canal has been recognised as a recreational amenity, and lovingly restored. A still, brooding presence to some, it's now a happy playground for others, who manoeuvre their colourful craft through Milltown. They come on holiday to cruise unhurriedly through the South Pennine landscape. For a few tranquil days, footling around on the canal, systems analysts and social workers can imagine themselves to be bold bargees instead, dressed in neckachiefs, collarless shirts, moleskin trousers and clogs.

The canal system - with its locks and leats and hump-backed bridges - is one of the last technologies we can all understand. After just a few minutes of tuition, holidaymakers can be entrusted to take the tiller of a hired narrowboat and negotiate the locks. Imagine the chaos if we let people drive their cars on the same basis, and operate the traffic lights too.

Today the canal towpath is the haunt of joggers, dog-walkers, courting couples, and a gang of malicious geese that rule their little fiefdom like feathered despots. Wounded Man has time hanging heavily on his hands but he's broke, as usual. People say that money talks, but when it talks to him, why is it just to say "goodbye"? A stroll along the canal towpath offers him the chance to escape from his problems for a while. He tries to convince himself that every experience in life - no matter how painful - has something to teach us. Though, in truth, he would have been happier to learn about financial incompetence from one of those self-improvement books that Willow Woman seems to find so irresistible.

There's an autumnal nip in the air. A watery sun makes a cameo appearance through a veil of early morning mist. A narrowboat glides serenely by - like a wraith, noiselessly, making barely a ripple. Fronds of willow herb, at the water's edge, are laced with dewy spiders' webs. Wounded Man's nostrils are assailed by sweet, pungent scents of garlic and aniseed.

Fishermen sit statue-still on the canal bank. Few of them want to engage in idle conversation; that's precisely what they've come here to get away from. And those who are prepared to chat only want to brag, bafflingly, about how much money they spent on the long black rods that extend the full width of the canal (don't even think of suggesting it would be easier to sit on the other side and just dangle the line in the water). "It's made of carbon fibre, you know", says one angler - celebrated, wherever two or three mendacious fishermen gather for a pint, for having caught the biggest South Pennine pike ever landed in one go. "Cost me nearly a grand, this pole", he beams, seemingly inviting approbation for his spendthrift habits. Sensing madness in the air, Wounded Man continues on his way.

The mist lifts, slowly, clearing the tops of the mill chimneys. A startled moorhen skitters into a reed-bed. Silhouettes of grazing horses are reflected in the water. After a restorative walk in the pale autumn sunshine, Wounded Man can retrace his steps back to Milltown with a light heart, a healthy appetite and feelings of righteous indignation he didn't know he possessed.

The traditional route through life is to be radical in youth, and complacent in middle age... before incontinence and memory loss lend a piquant regretfulness to our declining years. By the age of twenty five most of us have assembled a small portfolio of ready-basted beliefs and off-the-peg opinions, thus avoiding the need to furrow our brows in thought ever again.

Wounded Man, on the other hand, finds himself bucking the trend. Over the years he's tended to see the best in people, ascribing them - despite all evidence to the contrary - with good intentions. But beneath his feet the sands are shifting. He'll still suffer fools. Gladly. No, what worries him now are the out-and-out bastards: smiling people with good suits and firm handshakes who mean to do him harm.

He's spent far too long being docile and supine, rolling over in the face of adversity. But from now on he'll try to choose his enemies with the same care that he's chosen his friends. His jaw is set; his gaze is either steely or myopic. Wounded Man has taken the first, faltering steps down the road towards self-empowerment. He's not too sure what it means, but he's ready for anything.

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