Interview with masseur, Ross White

I am currently in the middle of a poetry commission, inspired by the village of Cropredy in Oxfordshire. During my research, I met Ross White www.mindfultouchmassage.co.uk who lives there on a canal boat and runs his own business in a shepherd’s hut in an orchard alongside the Oxford Canal.

It was already apparent to me how important the canal is to Cropredy, and how well integrated it is into the village. I wondered about the links between Ross’s work as a masseur and his life on the canal. Here are Ross’s responses to my questions followed by a found poem using words from his website.

What is it about living on a canal boat that you particularly like?

  • It’s like living inside a living thing, the way a moored boat rocks or sways in the current. It’s like coming home to a friend waiting patiently for you. A moored boat has the potential to travel many thousands of miles, yet it’s also content to wait.
  • The sense of belonging  to a group of people who have lived on canal boats for hundreds of years, somehow apart from normal dwelling.
  • The knowledge that you can move / escape if you want to.
  • Being somehow an observer into the lives of those who live around the canal.
  • Being literally in nature, hearing the fish or listening to ducks pecking the side of the boat.

What is special about the canal in Cropredy?

  • Its our chosen place. Both my wife and I wanted to live in Cropredy. It’s our children’s only home, where most of their friends live, sharing the water somehow.
  • The people here accept us and welcome us boaters; we are part of the community. One boater sits on the parish council. Some are members of the local WI.
  • It’s only a short walk out of the village into very quiet countryside.
  • I think about the suffering, injuries and death that must have occurred during the digging of the canal which today seems so peaceful. There is something important to learn here.

What do you think the place where you live and work will be like in 50 years time?

  • Some of the boats on this stretch of canal are historic, they will remain.
  • The brickwork of the canal will remain as it is.
  • People will rush past looking at devices oblivious to the history right here on the canal.
  • Some of the old bridges will be shored up by new technological building materials.
  • The canal will be very quiet again with boats driven by electric motors, a bit like the quiet times when they were pulled by horses.
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Oxford Canal, Cropredy

Slip gently
into undivided attention
dance with harmony
engage the deepest layers
relax the heart
soothe the mind and glide
fluid, in a connected state

 

© Heather Wastie
July 2019

 

Reflections on The Ring

You can find me and my poetry in the middle of a short video capturing artistic highlights of The Ring Project which took place last year. I’m reading from The Muck and Shovel Brigade, a collection of photographs and poetry celebrating the restoration of the Droitwich Canals.

On January 30th from 2:30pm there’s a symposium at the University of Worcester reflecting on the project’s impact. I’m one of the speakers. There are still a few tickets left. Click here for more and to see the video.

If you flick back through my blogs you will find several posts about the project of which I am immensely proud. Here are some reviews:

“Brilliantly moving, funny and informative.”
Cathy Mager, Artistic Director, The Ring Project

“An inspired piece of work!”
Sara-Jane Arbury, poet

“This is a beautiful book! … I was completely absorbed.”
Alison Brackenbury, poet

“… emotive and inspirational. I have been a volunteer for CRT [Canal & River Trust] for nearly 7 years, and while I am passionate about canals, your poetry has somehow given me a new insight into this amazing world.”
Ralph Gaskin

The Muck and Shovel Brigade coverNavvies Salwarpe Bridge low res

The Idle Women Summer 2018 tour

Kate Saffin and I (Alarum Theatre) finished our Spring tour of Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways last Saturday in Calf Heath Marina, Wolverhampton. We’re now preparing for the Summer tour which starts at the beginning of June. The first show is in Stoke Bruerne, then we’ll be on the Chesterfield Canal in West Stockwith. Click here for the full schedule and to book:

https://alarumtheatre.co.uk/2018-tour-dates/

Here are a couple of audience comments from the Spring tour to whet your appetite!

“Wonderful show – beautifully and compassionately performed.” – Sarah & Tony

“A wonderful performance – it brought the whole situation alive.” – Sue & Geoff

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I become a boatwoman

Chestnut Inn, Worcester

Chestnut Inn, Worcester

The Alarum Theatre tour is about to reach its half-way point with a show at Two Towers Brewery, Birmingham, 7.30pm on Wednesday 25th April. We will then have left the Worcester & Birmingham Canal.

I thought now would be a good time to share a new poem I have performed at every show, until now. Once we’re on the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations) I won’t be including it any more as much of the material in my half of the show relates to the areas we are passing through.

After leaving Birmingham we’re heading for the Black Country, where I was born and lived until 2006. It’s great to be close to home! Here are the Black Country dates:

Fri 27 April 7:00pm Brook St Community Centre, Tipton with fish & chip supper
Sat 28 April 7:30pm Titford Pump House, Oldbury
Tue 1 May 2:00pm Wood Lane Community Centre, West Bromwich
Tue 1 May 7:30pm The Lamp Tavern, Dudley

For the full schedule click here. For tickets/reservation click here.

Now here’s the poem!


I become a boatwoman

On the Worcester and Birmingham
in nineteen forty one,
a week’s trial – a trial it was
in more ways than one.

Confused and bewildered
I joined a team of three.
Daphne March and Molly Traill
set out to educate me.

Boats not barges.
Boaters not bargees.’
At seven feet wide by ten feet long,
the cabin’s quite a squeeze.

There’s no room for my suitcase
with all my travelling clothes
so I’m making do with a pillowcase
and heaven only knows

how I’ll sleep on the side bed –
two feet wide, no more –
with Daphne on the cross bed
and Molly on the floor.

On the Worcester and Birmingham
in nineteen forty one,
a week’s trial – a trial it was
in more ways than one.

Confused and bewildered
I joined a team of three.
Daphne March and Molly Traill
set out to educate me.

© Heather Wastie

April 2018
Words found in Amateur Boatwomen by Eily Gayford

Tiller, Kettle, Windlass

I’m delighted to be featured in this wonderful new film by Erin Hopkins:

Tiller, Kettle, Windlass – A Narrowboat Film

Windlass100 year old windlass – backdrop, NB Tench, 2017

The Muck and Shovel Brigade

Next Thursday, 15th March, the book of poems I have been working on for The Ring will be launched in Worcester. This has been a labour of love, taking me back to my first experiences of canals when I got to know Max Sinclair, whose photographs accompany my writing.

The Muck and Shovel Brigade cover

Max and his wife Jocelyn had six children, some of whom I remember. Sadly, since Max passed away a few years ago, I wasn’t able to interview him but his eldest son, Ian, helped with my research into Max’s life. I simply adore this photo of Ian with his three older sisters and the family owned boat, Vesta. Look closely at what they’re standing on.

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Amongst his father’s papers, Ian came across a poem which is not attributed to an author. It’s possible Max wrote it himself. I’ve copied it below.

THE DYING WITCH

From Droitwich down to Bevere,
the old canal sleeps silently,
for nothing but a scar remains,
as nature reclaims, hard won gains.

Foul pitch black water, cloaked in green,
lies stagnant, peaceful, and serene,
moorhens nest in the creeping reeds,
cracked bricks and mortar hang with weeds,

With here and there a fallen tree,
obstructing paths that used to be,
lock gates that crumble and decay,
iron gears and handles rust away.

So different now, for years, gone by
would echo to the bargee’s cry,
and huge black laden barges glide,
with Salwarpe weaving at their side.

Now men’s endeavours seem in vain,
to resurrect the Witch again,
For time, erosion, and decay
have stole the Witches life away.

How quickly eighty years have flown,
now phantom barges creak and groan,
and ghosts of horses labour still,
past Bill’s, and Porter’s, water mill.

Anon

Bill’s Mill refers to Mildenham Mill – see Mills and Windmills by Max Sinclair

To find out more about wych barges, you may like to read Katy Beinart’s blog. Katy is one of the other artists working on the Ring project.

I am indebted to Margaret Rowley (Previous Chair of Droitwich Canals Trust, Wychavon District Councillor and Chairman of Droitwich Waterways (Pamela May) Trust) for the time she spent going through Max’s photos with me. At our first meeting she told me that as well as the many volunteers who worked on the canal restoration, several inmates from Hewell Grange Open Prison were involved. On the whole, the scheme to involve prisoners was very successful, but there was one incident which Margaret told me about. Denis Pike told me the same story but with a slightly different ending. This poem didn’t make it into the book:

A prisoner, or so they say,
was working on the cut one day.
What was his crime? I did not ask.
He was a brickie, and his task
was helping to repair a wall.
Now be it true, or be it tall,
the story goes he took a train
and, so I’m told, flew off to Spain.

© Heather Wastie
August 2017

I will end with a couple of photos. There are so many things we take for granted. For example …

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Who made the diamond template for the number on this lock gate (Hawford Top Lock)? It could have been Alistair Main who still works as a Canal & River Trust volunteer.

And finally, I would like to thank Bill Lambert for providing this one, taken at Ladywood Lock in July 2009.

IMG_0762 Ladywood Lock July 2009

 

 

The women who hated the Bottom Road

During our tour of Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways, Kate Saffin and I have been invited to write a couple of guest blogs. Here’s a link to one I wrote for Frost Magazine which is introduced by Milly Adams. It’s all about the route the women took from Birmingham to the Coventry coalfields, a route I remember from my childhood. 

http://www.frostmagazine.com/2017/07/ah-brilliant-more-about-idle-women-of-the-waterways-by-milly-adams/

The Ring Project

As I explained in my previous blog post, I am working practically full-time on #TheIdleWomen project at the moment. Here’s a link to the blog I’ve been writing: Alarum Theatre blog

However I am also at the beginning of another exciting canal-based project, The Ring – a new arts programme which celebrates a 21-mile circle of waterways in Worcestershire. The project website will be launched on 20th June. In the meantime, you can follow on Twitter and Facebook. As one of their lead artists, I have been commissioned to concentrate on the Droitwich Canals and have just begun researching and doing a bit of writing to document what stands out for me.

When I was a teenager, my family was heavily involved in campaigning to save the canals, many of which were in a dire state. Dad had bought a 70-foot ex-working boat, Laurel, and we became part of a network of people who were passionate about bringing the waterways back to life. One of the people I remember well, and fondly, is Max Sinclair. As president of the Droitwich Canals Trust, it was Max who from the Sixties provided the driving force for the renovation of the Droitwich Barge Canal and Droitwich Junction Canal. In 2012 he won an Angel award from English Heritage for his dedication. I would have loved to speak to Max again, but sadly he passed away in 2016, so I began by reading this article about him, and made a note of things which resonated with me: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/angel-awards/10018202/The-angels-who-mucked-out-the-Droitwich-Canal.html

My Dad (Alan T Smith MBE) did a lot of ‘encouraging and cajoling, as did Max. Having read lots of Max’s words online, one thing I love is his honesty, and Dad too would have enjoyed the truth and humour of this paragraph: We were at Stourbridge doing some work – that was in 1961 – and this chap in a suit came along,” remembers Max. “He said that if we so much as disturbed the water on the canal we would be prosecuted. Someone gave the excavator driver a wink and he swung the bucket around and covered the chap in mud.”

Here are a few lines of ‘found poetry’, using lines from the article, not a finished piece but a starting point. Following that is a poem I wrote about a visit to the top of the 21 locks in Wolverhampton a few years ago.

The angels who mucked out
the Droitwich Canal
knew the value of patience

With grit and determination,
caked in mud, shovelling dirt,
pulling rusty bicycles from bushes,

they fought with tons of mud and soil,
M5 spoil
dumped between the banks

and a tangle
of hostility and inertia.

Heather Wastie

Histrionic water

In Wolverhampton,
fish take me by surprise.

Looking down from Broad Street Bridge,
then from the towpath edge

I need an explanation
for such unexpected clarity,

a long exposure of minnows,
lush reeds and sulky sediment.

It’s ironic, says the cut water,
I have been cleansed

by a vandal-induced stoppage.
Tearfully the water speaks:

It was you who saved me
from oil slick, effluent, blackened

polystyrene icebergs, mattress tangled
shopping trolleys, half inched bikes,

malicious metal spikes,
contents of living rooms tipped.

I was soap sud soup with beer bottle croutons,
peppered with cans and the odd chunk of meat.

You saved me from scum,
from smothering polythene,

wire running red, the callous garrottes
of those who would see me dead.

I fear the onset of duck weed.
You saved me to be stirred.

© Heather Wastie

Changing a space for ever 

A performance can change a space for ever. When ‘engagement and creative arts warrior’ Rachel Sharpe said words to this effect, I was struck by the truth of it. Having toured Idle Women of the Wartime Waterways to venues unused to hosting performances, I knew what she was getting at.

A good example is the Wildside Activity Centre in Wolverhampton, alongside the Staffs & Worcs Canal. The room was laid out for us to perform against the short wall of their rectangular space, the ‘top’ of the room – a wall cluttered with displays and other bits and pieces – but we chose the long wall which had several windows. We asked for the chairs to be arranged in a wide arc so that people could see us more easily, and we drew the curtains which created a simple dark backdrop without distractions. The organisers had never hosted a theatrical show before and were very accommodating. At the end of the evening, the Centre’s Project Leader, Steve, looked up at the strip lights and commented that for future events of this nature, it would be good to improve the lighting to make it more atmospheric. So a space previously seen only as an ‘activity room’ now has an added dimension as a theatre, and the success of our show has encouraged them to put on more events of this nature.

Wildside Activity Centre, Wolverhampton


There are other venues where we didn’t feel as if our hosts had noticed that they could easily have done more to give us a quiet space where we wouldn’t have to compete with, for example, the ring of a till or loud conversation. A pub which hasn’t hosted theatre before won’t necessarily have realised that it’s not appropriate to book people in to have a meal during the show. It may not occur to them that clattering cutlery and the necessity to communicate over dinner orders is not ideal for audience and artists alike! Some hosts will have taken things like this on board for the future and others not.

Not only does a performance change the space, but the audience changes the performance. A large responsive audience in a compact space gives a virtual sounding board which lifts us. Concentration was harder when we had: a sprawling audience with people chatting at the back, a bloke in the second row holding up a device to take photos or a video, wandering and/or barking dogs, a drunken woman (who was really enjoying the show), a man in a loud shirt whose phone had a very loud ringtone …. Every performance feels different and has its own quirks, not least because of the venue and the audience, and taking theatre to non-arts spaces means working round all sorts of inconveniences whilst hoping to develop use of that space and raise awareness of how arts events can work well in community venues.

Some people have come to see our show at least twice and have said it’s even better the second time, which is good to know! Tomorrow night we’re at Theatre in the Dock in Banbury when there will be a special announcement about our exciting plans for 2017. Next year there will be opportunities for our show to have an impact on new spaces, as we take audiences into another world where much of their surroundings are imagined: the back of a boat, a pub, a lock, the towpath, top planks, tarpaulin, sirens, doodlebugs … and lots of women!

For details of our forthcoming London shows and for more information, go to the Alarum Theatre website.