Caught by the River

Frank on a Narrowboat Part 3

28th July 2009


by Frank Cottrell Boyce

So today is the day we finish the Wigan Flight. I go ahead with Steve’s daughter to pre-set the locks and to check that the pounds have enough water for us. We stumble on an unreported youth subculture. Every fourth lock or so is surrounded by a group of big Wigan lads in shorts. They’ve been to B & Q and bought some allen keys, which they use to pop the anti-vandals locks on the gates. Then they use their bare hands to open and close the flaps, and make their lock into a really deep diving pools. They somersault, back flip, and tucks jump, they shove each other, trip each other, bomb each other in and out of the water. They help us with the gates but, unnervingly, carry on diving as the boat comes in. The propeller doesn’t seem to bother them any more than the shoals of poisoned fish and bags of rubbish that shuffle about on the black water.

I feel like I’ve made first contact with some unknown tribe. But I’m a short walk from Wigan. Canals are like Diagon Alley – an unknown route between two well known places in the real World which is surprisingly thronged with a different reality. In Wigan itself, we’re planning to fill up with water from a tap in The Pier. This was once a buzzing waterside museum complex. Now it’s closed down. Once it was a post industrial waste land. Now it’s a post heritage waste land. It turns out that the tap doesn’t work. We’re stuck. We’ve got no water. A voice hails us from an abandonned wharf across the water. A man with a broad cockney accent and a face as lined and leathery as an ancient Comanche is offering to get us some water. When we say thanks he turns away and we see that he’s got dreadlocks down to his bum. His boat is moored a few yards away and it turns out that he lives here, in the deserted ruins of the industrial empire. I ask him does he ever travel and he says he went to Crook to the beer festival – it’s about a mile away. He’s been here for years, ever since his engine conked out. Spookily I’m just up to the bit in Green Knowe where the children discover a man living a simple, natural life on a river island. An aged white rasta hiding out in an abandonned industrial museum is the Wigan version. He looks just like the man in the illustrations.

Last night we moored at Crook, opposite a pub, and we discovered that our waste tank was full. It shouldn’t be but it is. We can’t afford to wash dishes, use the toilet or get washed from now until we can empty it. There was a place to do this at Wigan but we missed it and now we don’t have time to turn back. We’ll have to continue to the next one, which is in Maghull. With all the good cheer of a true man of faith, Steve says we have become a floating parable, a little poisoned planet. It’s a lesson. I’m concentrating on ways to delay our departure until I’ve taken a dump in the pub toilet. I do sometimes wonder if we are getting our message across clearly enough. Last night we held a quiz in the pub. It was very successful, lots of people joined in and James – the question master – dressed up as Noah and invited people over to the barge. The winners enthusiastically agreed to have their photo taken for the Wigan papers. Then one of them turned to me and said, “You’ve been very kind but why is he …” he pointed to Noah “ … done up as Rasputin.”


That afternoon we do a school event in Parbold. I tell the Noah story – playing down the vengeful God bit and playing up the environmental aspect. I’m struck every time I do it by the power and wisdom of the story. Where did that ancient nomadic culture come up with the Ark idea. It’s a concept that’s there in every seed bank and in the genome project – the notion that you can sure something up against the ruin. But what made them think of it. And I’m struck every time by the power of that idea that this is a second chance, that you can start afresh after you’ve screwed up, even on a global scale. I get really into it. I riff on the Ark as a mini planet and understandably become sidetracked into a routine about elephant pooh and what to do with it. I feel like I’m putting my all into it. I ask if there are any questions. A little girl’s hand shoots up. “Have you ever ate a nettle?” she asks.