Thursday, 27 May 2010

Can Art help get Britain's canals out of their current financial crisis?

Ignore it, adore it, spit at it or laugh out loud at it... Art always contributes to every society's consciousness. From an English village where playschool pinnies come out for paint play, to the scars of Iraqi slippers on the vandalised statue of a fallen dictator.

But what has art got to do with any campaign to save our waterways? (IWA campaign: Well, everyone knows canals have Roses & Castles – the traditional folk art of the people who worked and lived on canal boats in the Industrial Revolution. Decorated pots and pans add to the tourist attraction, and make neat souvenir trinkets. Good stuff for small craft businesses across the waterways.

But we're not silly, we know pots and pans aren't enough to get the waterways out of their financial crisis?

More public support for the waterways is what matters at the moment. More press coverage. More visitors. Every so often, British Waterways sets artists loose on the towpaths to prick public interest and hopefully prod the press into precious media coverage. Fake holes on the towpath and controversial installations of dog-poo in trees do the trick But imagine the impact of a much grander, iconic, public art project.

My point is this:

Antony Gormley sculptures. Take 3 of his most famous projects:
1) The Angel of The North rolls around every speeding heart on the A1.
2) Iron Man stands silently, with the audacity to rust away in Birmingham city centre.
3) Another Place, Crosby Beach, near Liverpool, where the statues of 100 iron souls gaze out to sea, with hope beyond the tides.

Mr G's sculpture and the spirit of the waterways would go together like jam and Victoria sponge cake. After all, Britain's canals were our first motorways, made for boats during the Industrial Revolution - and now they offer a vision of hope for urban regeneration, and an accessible escape to rural Britain. Right up Mr G's street!

Imagine Gormley's Iron Men of the Waterways, and where they might stand...

The Angel of the Caen Hill flight wistfully watching over travellers?

Iron Waterways Man daubed in Roses & Castles outside the waterways museum? (attracting visitors as the Puppy sculpture does outside the Guggenheim in Bilbao -

Statuesque souls half-immersed in river silt at the moody brink of the Gloucester & Sharpness Canal? (Crosby Beach has been inundated with visitors since Gormley's sculptures arrived there)

Or what about a solitary Iron Waterways Man on a lonely bit of the Pennine cruising ring? Or Iron Waterways Man graffiti-sprayed by Camden's community?

Imagine the monumental tourist attraction and what that could do for the canals, politically and financially. Imagine the thrill of one day meeting Iron Waterways Man on your travels.

Canals should always be about boating, but they were born and have survived through a tradition of entrepreneurialism and creativity. The real Iron men (and women) of the waterways.

Am I alone on this one?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Waterways for everyone: boats, bikes and walking boots?

All ducks are equal. But are some ducks more equal than others?

"Pah!" say some boaters - but economic need and ethical responsibility is driving the mood of canal folk to properly share our secret national treasure of 2,000 miles of linear heritage. The future of Britain's canals can't be ruled by boaters alone – canals are increasingly used for waterside outdoor pursuits too. Towpaths are being improved, and sometimes even controversially hardsurfaced, to make flat cycle routes and easy canal walks.

IWA, the Inland Waterways Association, have just published a typically rational, informative and ever-so-tactfully provocative article (by Mark Bradley and Keith Goss) on the changing status of Britain's canals... i.e. how we can use them for everything from holiday boating to jogging along the towpath. But when pedal power, boat power and quiet people in walking boots all syphon together in one narrow zone, surely that spells conflict?

Speaking from my own canal experiences as: 1) live-aboard narrowboater 2) long distance canal walker 3) slow canal cyclist.
When I'm in a canal boat, I'm not keen on coach-loads of strolling gongoozlers getting dangerously in my way at the lock gates; when I'm on my bike, I loathe pedalling in first gear behind gaggles of walkers hogging the towpath; when I walk canals, I rage at bike-bells and lycra gusts of wind knocking me into the canal. All 3 of me want it our own way! That said, as all canal goers know, everyone meets up at the end of the day in the local canalside boozer, to share the best of canal life - a pint of mild in a good old-fashioned canal pub solves everything.

And in the same solidarity, cyclists, walkers and boaters are willing to join together on the campaign to Save Our Waterways from blunderingly short-sighted goverment funding cuts. In my bones I know it's an excitingly tough time for canals... and I am (despite selfishly wanting to keep the canal world all to myself) really glad more folk than ever are discovering the secrets of the canals. Yet, in the success of popularizing the waterways, my heart would break if every beautifully clumpy canal towpath was tarmacked so it could be described as accessible to all: canal nature, integrity, heritage and slow manners jeopardized! Off-the-beaten track adventures for canal trail walkers like me would be ruined. Imagine the outcry if Britain's other footpaths, the National Trails, the Offa's Dyke Path, the Pennine Way or the Cotswold Way were smothered in Tarmac! Horror NO!! I'm an activist to protect long-distance canal walks. "Let me smell the soil, scuff the grass, KEEP CANAL WALKS GREEN!"

It goes without saying that bringing investment to the canals is the task ahead. Yet what's special about canals to me is not what money can buy, but more pressingly what we might lose without proper funding.... irreplaceable heritage, unique landscape, slow culture, stoic solitude and a special sense of community that another Britain has lost. Balancing everyone's needs and respecting the territory is the trick. Canals can offer a perceived escape from the hierarchies of consumerism that's priceless. So when it comes to planning for our waterways future, should we be mindful of who gets the biggest say? The Mallard with the loudest voice, the fat Goose who waves the largest wad of money, the decoy Coot... or just a bunch of us daft Ducks?