The mystery and poetry of the towpath

I was inclined to be poetical about the Grand Canal," said Nathaniel Hawthorne in his New-England Magazine sketch "The Canal Boat", from 1835. It's insightful writing, in which he describes the canal wending its way through each town as "the most fertilizing of all fluids" and feeding their "masses of brick and stone, their churches and theatres, their business and hubbub, their luxury and refinement, their gay dames and polished citizens – to spring up, till, in time, the wondrous stream may flow between two continuous lines of buildings, through one thronged street."

Times have changed, and when we visit most inner-city canals today we are met with a rather different spectacle: a strange face-off between post industrial, urban decay and a quick-fix, garish mode of gentrification – gone now is the original Hawthornian sense of hope and industry, something canals once symbolised to so many. Yet canals have always remained poetical places, and many novelists have felt this same inclination to be poetical about them. There are numerous who use the motif of the canal to lift their fictions into higher realms. Albert Camus' The Fall, Samuel Beckett's First Love and Alexander Trocchi's Young Adam are three fine examples. All possess the same desire to capture the poetic, as well as the brute materiality of the inner-city canal.

Canals are wonderfully odd and fascinating places. When we "walk down to the canal", just below the surface of the city, we step away from the real into an unreal mode of irregular patterns and actions, yet, somehow, something of the real remains, represented in the red brick of the city towering above. The canal is a rhythmical dislocation from the everyday tumult of the city, without true separationl; an echo, a microcosm or simulacrum of everything that happens in the streets up above. Strange things, dreams and nightmares, just a whisper away from the teeming city streets, can happen: commuters, the homeless, cyclists, teenagers, anglers, cuckolds, loners and psychopaths all mix together by the murky water, feeding from the towpath as if it's a main artery pumping life into their very being, while the swans, coots, moorhens and Canada geese nonchalantly drift by, watching each drama unfold. It's why the motif of the canal continues to reappear in literary fiction: there's something magical to be found by its stagnant water.

"There is variety enough," continues Hawthorne, "both on the surface of the canal and along its banks, to amuse the traveller." And he's not wrong, there's something tragicomic about the make-up of canals that forces drama to unfold there. Yet most of us remain blissfully unaware.

Lee Rourke's 'The Canal' is published by Melville House