Lavish banquets and free lunches — not to mention a KfC taste for English bitter and a lot of free time — were taking their toll on the scale, so I had decided to take up jogging in an attempt to stem the weight gain. When we set up camp late in the fellowship in London, it didn’t take me long to discover that the Regent’s Canal was just a few blocks north. Instead of dodging traffic and running lights (both are life-threatening tactics for runners in the London street-level environment), I could jog along uninterrupted on the towpath. Literally, it meant experiencing one of the world’s most vibrant cities not from the ground or the highrises (and we certainly did that), but from the very strange perspective of a quiet, water-centred, badly-littered trench that cut its peaceful, scummy way through the action from Paddington in the west to the Thames in the east.
So when I first came across reviews of The Canal (The Asylum and Just William’s Luck both loved it — it made Will’s 2010 yearend top 10), my first thought was: Hey, that’s my London canal! The wonderful cover of the novel itself brought back decades-old memories of stumbling along (I was a very heavy, neophyte “jogger”, more speeded-up walker than real runner, truth be told) through that unique space.
Rourke’s canal is indeed “my” canal, a mile or two of inner-city water course in both his book and my experience rather than the whole thing, the canal as it passes through Islington and Hackney. This all-too-extended quote which opens the novel is a perfect description of what I experienced, more than three decades ago:
Along the towpath of the canal, halfway between Hackney and Islington, I stopped at a brown bench. It was nestled between two large hedges that had long since overgrown. The towpath was busy with people walking and cycling towards Islington on their way to work. [What — no joggers!!! Or stumblers] Although I could pretty much see everything from the bench, it was hard for passers-by to see me until they were almost in front of me. It was the perfect spot for me to sit, undisturbed; somewhere I could do nothing and simply watch it all go by. The air was still, silent — I could smell the water. It made me think of the dredgers I used to watch as a child, the hard work they did cleansing the bed of the canal. Behind the bench was the exterior wall of a health centre used by the Packington Road Estate tenants. To the immediate left of this wall, if I faced towards the murky canal, was a rusty iron bridge spray-painted in graffiti — the kind of graffiti the perpetrators must have had to defy gravity to apply — near a new-ish sign that reads: Shepherdess Walk. A tangle of iron railings and fences guarded the bridge from people who thought it might have been a good idea to hurl themselves off it into the canal — probably to spare them from embarrassment, as the drop into the canal wouldn’t lead to their deaths due to it being too short.
I am pretty sure that that is the longest quote that this blog has ever indulged in — and it is less than a quarter of Rourke’s opening ode to the “canal” which is the centrepiece of this book. I admit I had to resist typing Centrepoint just there — the concrete carbunkle that looms over London from just a mile or so away represents everything that the Regent’s Canal of this novel is not, and not just its height. Rourke’s canal is like a magnet for his characters (and there are not many) and it deserves to be recognized as such — not a beacon to chase, but a powerful force that draws in its prey.
They aren’t heading into the “underworld” (that would be the catacombs of the Tube), they are looking for some sort of protected middle space. That includes the novel’s unnamed narrator, who defines his circumstances in a short prologue:
Some people think that boredom is a bad thing, that it should be avoided, that we should fill our lives with other stuff in order to keep it at bay. I don’t. I think boredom is a good thing: it shapes us; it moves us. Boredom is powerful. It should never be avoided. In fact, I think boredom should be embraced. It is the power of everyday boredom that compels people to do things — even if that something is nothing.
I don’t mean to dispute the novelist on his central theme, but I would have used a different word to describe his character’s condition: “disengagement” (you can see why I am a blogger, not a novelist). He can see part of the world around him from the trench where the canal is located but, by definition, it is a restricted view, and only a view. It demands no personal involvement beyond what he chooses to make on his required or chosen ventures out of the trench of the canal. At this point in his life, that is all that he is up to. For KfC the jogger, the peace of the canal was a temporary escape — for Rourke’s hero, there is the forlorn hope of a more permanent one.
Like all escapes, alas, the canal and its towpath soon acquire real-world elements of their own. There is a mid-rise office building across the canal from the bench and the character not only observes what is happening behind the windows and on the terrace, he enriches his imaginery stories of the people whom he is watching. And there is a gang of ASBO youths, The Pack Crew, who vandalize both the world of the canal and the bigger world above it, a violent link between the two states. And finally there is a young woman who visits the area — and sits on the bench — whom our hero thinks shares his motivation of “boredom” and with whom he strikes up an acquaintance. A business world, a destructive gang world, an individual world — all representative of the options life offers outside the protected seam of the canal.
Obviously, my own experience with the Regent’s Canal affected my response to the novel. I think I can safely say, however, that anyone who has ever been in one of the world’s great cities and wondered what it would be like to be there, not really personally involved with what was happening, but rather a “perfect observer”, even if the lens was restricted, will find this story interesting. I suspect it speaks more to visitors to London than it does to residents — visitors are already somewhat “disengaged” and confused by what is happening.
Then again, if your regular route to work and back home involves travelling along the Embankment — or the Regent’s Canal, or any of London’s other wonderful diversions — you may find that Lee Rourke has painted a very special picture of what it is like to be both “there” and “not there”. He certainly did for me.