The post here was written by James Pentney and is a remarkable piece – it involves a lyrical and spiritual odyssey from the Severn to the Thames with an inflatable canoe.
I walked back with Jim, from the Little Chapel at Rodborough Tabernacle, after seeing John Bassett’s and Paul Southcott’s Gallipoli performance, in mid-September. Johnny Fluffypunk was dressed in his customary Great War homage vintage gear and Jim was pushing his bike, clad in an illuminated white hat, under a starry sky and a waxing harvest moon. It was a typical Rodborough scene.
‘You’re a literary chap’, he said to me, ‘have you come across a 1913 book about travelling from the Severn to the Thames, through the Sapperton Tunnel? The last time that was done.’
I confessed that I hadn’t and our conversation turned to Jim’s journey of re-creation and re-interpretation. I asked Jim if he had kept a travelogue. Jim kindly agreed to send me through his record of his watery pilgrimage. It arrived the next day.
Many thanks, Jim.
Readers, I am sure that you will enjoy this.
Cycling down the towpath by the Stroudwater Canal
Pondering how no boat has gone from the Severn to the Thames
Since what’s his name … you know who …
Then there at Attwools by the old A38
W-hey … W-hoo
A k-blow up knu
In a very fetching shade of blue
And a kn-other knu
With paddles too
It was then I knew what I must do
Not for a hundred years, one assumes, has a boat gone from Sabrina,
the Severn, to Old Father Thames since, you know who. But …
I’ve a knu
A k-rubber knu
Not pea-green, lavender or blue
It’s true, a knu
A k-yellow knu
To paddle all the way is over due
Slipped into the Severn at Framilode
I launched the knu
k-plunk, k-plosh, k-poo
Stuck in the mud I lost a shoe
But not the knu
It’s no longer new
To paddle all the way to London Zoo
And see the gnu
And free the gnu
In the yellow knu there’s room for two
Me and you
Gnu and knu
And then we really ought to know w-ho’s w-ho
Thank you, beaucoup
It was announced war has been declared on rhyme in Stroud
True, no haiku, but a stand up in defense and tribute Michael Flanders
In The Flower of Gloster, one of the last boats to plough the Sapperton Tunnel
and a book dating from 1913, the words of an old boy are recorded.
“My big grandfather … the day the tunnel was opened,
he was walking down the towpath and he met a feller coming along,
and he said to my big grandfather, ‘where are you going my man?’
- to see the king.
‘I am the king,’ says the man and gives him a guinea;
and when he looked on the head on the coin,
I’m dommed if it worn’t.”
That would have been George III on 19th July 1788.
“My first job” said a volunteer working on the towpath, “was clearing out Joe Price’s workshop. Heard of him?
He was the blacksmith who could hammer metal white hot.
Two of us struggled to shift his anvil and he just lifted it on his own
and he was in his eighties then.”
We are weak shadows.
It was the longest deepest widest in the world they say.
Twenty four shafts linked at the base.
No record exists of how many died or squeezed into what is now the Inn
between twelve or fourteen hour days of digging out countless tons
of rock and soil by hand.
For two and three quarter miles the tunnel burrows.
Few ‘legged’ it through even a hundred years ago.
We are weak shadows of them.
If? “In the beginning was the word”
Before was there symmetry and silence?
“There are no words in heaven,” a monk at Prinknash Abbey was heard to say.
Haiku uses words
sparsely and in prime numbers
that strike a tension.
Haiku disapproves of metaphor and frowns on trying to be clever.
It aims to realize “the eternal universal truth contained in being,”
an aim shared with stone letter carving,
where chasing, chopping and stabbing are terms used for the angle of the chisel.
Tip tap, trace the line
Chip chop, chase the curve
Sharp on diamond crystalline
Tungsten tipped and hold the nerve.
Wet and dry the splinters fly,
Stab to stop
Not quite alone
Between the chisel
And the stone’
Good fortune led to collaboration with haiku writer and wildlife illustrator,
Paul Russell Miller (PRM), in the setting of his words as poetry in the landscape.
Haiku being a Japanese form often limited to seventeen syllables,
capturing an ‘instant of intuition.’
Among evening reeds
the young heron’s lunge again
brings gentle nodding (PRM)
Brambled lock relics
Tangle tumble to Chalford,
add to the beauty.
Chipping away in Gloucestershire on bits of stone,
an earlier project was on the broken slate of a discarded pool table.
Into it I carved ‘Song’ by the composer and poet, Ivor Gurney,
written before the Battle of Passchendaele where he was gassed in 1917
“Only the wanderer
Knows England’s graces,
Or can anew see clear
And who loves joy as he
Who dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.”
(For a group early in New Year 2013 I referred to my grandfather,
who was lost in the battle cruiser Goliath on his birthday in May 1915.)
Decades of mist lift to show the pain opaque in his eyes before he died.
Was it his father he saw?
“If he had returned, I don’t know how we should have coped,” he weeps.
Downed in the Dardanelles, in sight of Troy,
I have the tattered telegram and the copper medallion.
Isn’t there a First World War song
“Something, something, something to the Dardanelles”?
The name resounds, Dardanelles.
It chimes, tolls echoes as the centenary looms, surfacing to be salvaged.
Scribble on the screen,
Start of a journey’s journal?
Not quite prose or poetry but a record, a log.
Adrift in the dark hours
as light fluttered snow scattered.
Where bells ring.
The ex-mayor and local Green councilor spoke of his uncle, a veteran of the War,
being tormented in the months before his death by the faces of those he had bayoneted. The witness made his nephew a lifelong peace campaigner.
As pilgrimage, the haiku hike, the Gurney journey continues in the knu (Ivor Knu)
and on foot.
Ivor’s sonnet, ‘Brimscombe’ needed carving.
One lucky hour in the middle of my tiredness
I came under the pines of the sheer steep
And saw the stars like steady candles gleam
Above and through; Brimscombe wrapped (past life) in sleep:
Such body weariness and bad ugliness
Had gone before, such tiredness to come on me;
This perfect moment had such pure clemency
That it my memory has all coloured since,
Forgetting the blackness and pain so driven hence,
And the naked uplands from even bramble free,
That ringed-in hour of pines, stars and dark eminence.
Wonder of men had walked there, and old Romance.
(The thing we looked for in our fear of France.)
There are still pines up the ‘sheer steep.’
At night the same ‘stars like steady candles gleam.’
High in arts and crafts the chapel of St Mary and the Angels is there.
It was commissioned by two nurses from the war.
Together they took holy orders and a community grew around them.
They lie buried together beside the chapel.
Sister Mary Stephen’s welcoming kindness encouraged this prolog, log
and maybe epilog.
Toward the top of the steep, edged into the charred interior of the hollow ash tree,
I finished All Roads Lead To France about Edward Thomas.
In the army he taught map reading and would have grasped at once the glimpse of the Golden Valley spied through the trunk, as would have his First World War contemporary, Gurney.
Down at Brimscombe Port empty post war factories echoed under cracked asbestos roofs. Volunteers and pay-back lads weaved wheel barrows around the mills
to lay ‘type one’ chippings and ‘five mil to dust’ aggregate on the towpath
recreating the gentle curves bordered with boards.
‘When From The Curve’ is another of Gurney’s war poems
When from the curve of the wood’s edge does grow
Power, and that spreads to envelope me –
Wrapped up in sense of meeting tree and plough
I feel tiny song stir tremblingly
And deep; the many bird pangs separate
Taking most full of joy, for soon shall come
The kindling, the beating at Heaven gate
The flood of tide that bears strongly home.
Then under the skies I make my vows
Myself to purify and fit my heart
For the inhabiting of the high House
Of Song, that dwells high and clean apart.
The fire, the flood, the soaring, these the three
That merged are power of Song and prophesy.
Framed in a tar soaked sleeper
The first of Paul’s carved haikus reads
What joy to receive
from each towpath dragonfly
its dismissive glance
Rebuilt now, the canal meanders around Capel’s Mill and the towering railway viaduct
where new pillars of concrete have been driven deep down.
Cocooned plastic bottles litter our layers of archaeology.
In an oblong of local limestone dumped on the, the broken moulding hint
of a once grander structure read,
On the sunlit bed
one of those silted branches
casts a pike’s shadow
The miles separating the great rivers join at Wallbridge in Stroud,
the start or end of the Thames and Severn Canal.
In ‘canal fever’ days there were two companies, the earlier ‘Stroudwater’
ripples on from the new lock gates to the Severn at Framilode.
On the seal of the Thames and Severn Canal Company
Old Father Thames splices a rope with the Goddess Sabrina
‘Tentanda Est Via’ proclaims the Latin motto
- push oneself beyond our limits is the way to live.
The carving of the block at the lock was in time to see the Olympic torch go by.
The stone itself might well have been passed by George III on 19th July 1788.
At the foot of the staircase in the Museum in the Park the scene can be seen in an oil painting with a trow being towed and lines of red cloth draped on ‘tenterhooks’
strung across the hillside.
The Stroudwater drifts on down through ‘Ocean’ near Stonehouse and the Vale.
Perhaps because there was a basin wide enough for cargo carrying craft of the Severn,
the trows, to turn. Swans nest in the reeds.
The swing bridge has been replaced but two of the original stones were kept.
One contrasts the creaminess of Cotswold stone with ‘Devonian’ or ‘Old Red Sandstone.’
Ocean’s ageless wave
Standing still and timeless here
In the Old Red Sand
The other stone is local, crumbly and embedded with shells.
The old bridge turned on the square hole in the centre that housed the pivot,
it is capped now with a marble tern carved in low relief to enclose a time capsule.
St Cyr’s church squats across the water.
Dedications to the infant martyr are rare on this side of the channel.
Beyond, the M5 hums, the old A38 trundles,
the bridges of the Gloucester Sharpness canal swing
and the Severn, Sabrina, the silver goddess, the river nymph, curves.
MONO-LOG (for 6th September to be performed at Capel’s Mill sculpture ‘In Transit’
I propose leaning a slate with carved monkeys on an A frame against the sculpture structure. The performer holds a chisel and hammer.
Beside him stands a more military looking figure – possibly me)
‘We are just weak shadows
Up the line.
Mid-summer’s day for me began with relief carving of these dismembered monkeys.
Chase the curve.
Dummy mallet and chisel in hand, you can find me down along the cut that links the two great rivers.
Sharp on diamond crystalline
Tungsten tipped to trace the nerve.
Stones all have silent stories.
Wet and dry the splinters fly.
A previous carver carved them.
Cut into panels - dismembered,
they clamber over what had been the front.
As birds sang an idea came.
How are we, down here, seen by them?
Above song birds spy
half remembered monkeys in
the dappled shadows
Entombed here in slate,
polished with oil and copper,
almost caste in bronze.
Stab to stop
Not quite alone
Between the chisel and the stone.
Seen Paulozzi’s giant on guard at Pangolin where bronze is forged?
Sam Freeman made this there. Know him?
(end, then the other one (me?) speaks ….. )
‘The unit I’m with? Guess.
Ready night or day. Kit packed.
Arctic, tropical, desert, underwater underwear,
Tungsten tipped chisels, diamond sharpened
dummy mallet - best carry a spare.
Few words needed
Drop a syllable at thirty thousand feet and we’ll there.
Lately some scatty poet, Ann Drex we call her,
flushed his last line. She was off on one.
Soiled, encrusted in crap.
We got it back though.
So now you know.
I’m with HER - HER
Haiku Emergency Rescue,
No one knows when the next haiku moment’ll strike;
but we’re waiting.’
‘ … that Old Man River … ‘
Budda, Confusius, Pythagoras, Plato, Archimedes, Aristotle, Daniel, Elias, Elija, John the Baptist John the Evangelist John Glen, Jesus, Mohamed, Geoffrey of Monmouth, Hildegard of Bingham, Roger Bacon, Leonardo de Vinci, Galileo Galilei, Gottenburg, Shakespeare, Newton, Jenner, Darwin, Brunel, Morris, Marx, Churchill, Ghandi, Turin, Dirac, Luther, Luther King, Dylan, Hawking, Mandella Malala…….
‘… just keeps on rolling along’ – Paul Robeson
In his ‘Dreaming Time For The Witches’ Yeats explains “Sabrina was considered one of the three daughters of the mountain Plynlimon who arose one morning to make their way to the sea by different routes. Geoffrey of Monmouth described a princess who drowned in the shallows of the estuary – part of a far older tradition describing mythical journeys.
For tens if not hundreds of thousands of years offerings were made to rivers around the world in gratitude for good fortune. A Trojan connection has the granddaughter of Brutus, the grandson of Aeneus, drowned in the Severn, Snow White like, by her jealous stepmother.
Did Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Merlin foresee the Goddess Sabrina united with Old Father Thames to usher in a golden age? The writer of the ‘Heroic Poem’ in the 1770s celebrated the Act of Parliament for the canal and on 19th July 1788 George III was there at the Sapperton Tunnel. Then what?
SABRINA: “So there you are.
Wake up, wake up you silly old fool.
Get up Merlin.”
MERLIN: “Ugh, good Goddess, oh… I must have dropped off.”
SABRINA: “Only for the last two hundred and fifty years.”
MERLIN: “I was tired. How are you and your other half?”
SABRINA: “That weak, male, meandering, mean, home counties, money grabbing, lecherous, filthy, old … Thames.”