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Poetry in motion

Looking for inspiration for his new poem celebrating the Autumn equinox, canal laureate, Roy McFarlane returned to the canals he grew up on, in the Black Country town of Tipton. Where the Walsall Canal meets the New Mainline, he found the call of the waterways was as strong as ever, telling him to ‘Come Walk this Way’.

Canal laureate, Roy McFarlane standing next to the canal

Roy explains: “That sweet sense of returning home, to somewhere familiar and full of memories is where the poem begins,” as he ponders why his local stretch of towpath and regular walking path means so much to him.

“So that's why it's ‘well known, trodden and overrun', to me in the first stanza – it's just somewhere that's always well looked-after, well-used, well-loved, and good to come back to. And you won't believe this, but I was actually listening to Earth, Wind and Fire on my headphones while I was walking along there. All the symbolism of those essential elements are so synonymous with autumn, and the song ‘September' had to go in the poem.

If you look at a lot of my writing, I am often influenced by music. I like to riff like jazz around a piece of music and add another layer of meaning to the poem. We all have songs that remind us of a time, a place, a person, or a moment in our lives, and I celebrate mine in my poems.”

As you may remember from his earlier canal poems, featured in our most recent Waterfront magazine, the hidden links between industrial canals, empire and colonial migration back to the UK, fascinate Roy. In this poem, he reveals a little-known truth about a humble plant, found right across our canal network: “Not many people know this, but the beautiful purple buddleia, or as it's often known, the butterfly bush, isn't native to the UK, even though you find it almost everywhere along our canals.”

Close-up of buddleia flower next to the canal

Named after the English botanist Rev. Adam Buddle, the first plants were sent back to Britain from the Caribbean in around 1730, just before early industrial canal building got underway. As Roy says: “You could write a whole poem about buddleia and the parallels with the migration of Caribbean people. We were both transported to England, carrying someone else's name.”

From buddleia to birds, Roy also deliberately introduced another species into the poem after making friends with one particular heron, around the Icknield Port Loop and Edgbaston Reservoir in Birmingham. “I was doing some filming and workshops nearby, and I guarantee you, every morning I would see the same heron and he would fly ahead of me as I was walking, jump on a branch or roof and pose. And then do it again as I got closer. As I sat down to write a day or two later, he just had to go in too.”

As well as wildlife, Roy was keen to include the urban landscape, and youthful energy of his local canal in the final two stanzas: “Anyone who grew up in the Black Country could tell you about this estate near the canal that's known as ‘the Lost City,” he tells us. “It was one of the first council estates built in the country in the 1920's and got its name because it was quite isolated from the rest of Tipton, with only one road going in, and one going out.

Today, it's still got a bit of a reputation and looking under the water of the nearby canal, it got me wondering what kind of stories were hidden underneath. The sins of the trollies, bikes and who knows what, thrown into the canal. Similarly, looking at the tags and graffiti, I wondered about the young people in the area and how they were trying to make themselves heard, known and seen in the modern age.

You know, I have a background in youth work, and having spent this last year on canals, I'd love to share the experience of spending restful time on a narrowboat with young people like that. There's something immensely calming about boats that young people need to experience. I love that gentle roll that makes you a little less sure of yourself. That gives you a little nudge to remind you that you are on water, rather than solid ground.”

Last Edited: 21 October 2022

photo of a location on the canals
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