Oliver Cross: Call of nature is stronger than you think on the canal

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THE INTERESTING thing about England’s canals is that they take you to places that you wouldn’t normally visit, often because they’re not worth visiting.

Last week my partner Lynne and I spent a few days pottering along the Rufford Branch – an arm of the Leeds-Liverpool canal – in our shared-ownership narrow boat, which, following an intensive programme of improvements, has risen to a position of mediocrity, somewhere between the wrecks owned by ex-hippies and water-gipsies and the immaculate, beautifully-decorated craft owned by the sort of middle-aged couples who iron their matching shorts.

The Rufford Branch is in a part of West Lancashire that looks rural and prosperous, like a select part of Cheshire, except that the locals speak in high-pitched Merseyside accents which make them sound like they’re auditioning for Brookside. Its banks contain a puzzling array of mechanisms for opening and closing lock gates and swing bridges, as if more than 300 years of canal technology (once, though it’s hard to believe now, as radical and life-changing as satellites or computers) is on display in a little bit of Lancashire.

It’s not a place of great beauty but canals don’t have to be beautiful; they are more like exercises in mindfulness. They encourage you to think slowly and carefully and, for want of anything better to do, to notice the smallest details. ‘That moorhen has unusually long legs’, you might say, or ‘Look, that farmer’s left his gate slightly ajar!’, or ‘Are we near a pub?’.

This last thought, incidentally, has nothing to do with a craving for alcohol. The Leeds-Liverpool canal, which follows contour lines, and the Rufford Branch, which follows a by-passed river bed, meander so much that, even travelling at walking-pace, it needs an airline pilot’s level of concentration to avoid crashing into one bank or the other. Being even mildly drunk would invite disaster.

We looked for pubs because even the most inadequate pub toilet is likely to be vastly superior to the wobbly, plastic mobile toilets used on boats. You get to yearn, more than for the finest ales or wines, for a solid lump of porcelain to sit and contemplate on. Plus you don’t have to empty and clean pub toilets. Boat-toilet emptying involves finding one of the rather rare ‘sanitation points’ along the canal and going through a process which, although an essential part of the canal-cruising experience, could not be mistaken for fun.

The constant search for pub toilets was accompanied, naturally, by a constant search for pub grub, although I can report that no meal we tried rose above the level of ‘average’, as pub food hardly ever does.

We did, though, have one tandoori takeaway which was far bigger than it needed to be and, when disposing of it later, we found, which is the sort of thing only of interest to canal users, that ducks don’t like rice but are rather partial to naan bread.

This was when we encountered a very noisy inter-bred group of white ducks and mallards who seemed to enjoy pushing and shoving each other without regard to colour. In contrast to the ducks, the West Lancashire humans, although surrounded by racially-mixed towns and cities like Preston or Liverpool, were very much mono-ethnic – almost all of them (except the tandoori staff) being white and British.

One day, because the conservation lobby seems obsessed with preserving ‘native species’, such as the white-clawed crayfish or the red squirrel, this part of West Lancashire might have to be given Special Protection Status, with humans of foreign origin only being allowed in if they can prove themselves to be indispensable to the takeaway food industry.

HERE IT COMES. Either the most important political event of our lifetimes or a great fuss about nothing much.

I was interested to hear a radio interview in which David Cameron, blustering wildly, managed to avoid the question: ‘Would you resign if the Scots vote to dissolve the union?’

But this is a question which he will be asked again if things go wrong for him on Thursday – and I think it’s a fair one because a ‘yes’ vote would largely be a vote against the right-wing, Thatcherite ideology which Mr Cameron has enthusiastically promoted.

The poisonous relationship between Thatcherism and Scotland is entirely the fault of the Thatcherites, who watched the Scottish Conservatives collapse to a point when they were nearly on the floor and then gave them a fatal kicking by introducing, for no sensible reason, the poll tax in Scotland before England.

Mr Cameron never planned to put the union in jeopardy; he just wanted to placate a bolshie party blindly committed to the Thatcherite agenda. The trouble was that he couldn’t please his MPs and the people of Scotland at the same time. Divorce, if it happens, will be seen in retrospect to have been inevitable.

If I had any say in the matter, I would support the ‘yes’ side because I’m sure the price of splitting the union would be far less drastic than some people think (country-splitting, as in the former Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia or the Balkans, having become routine). A split would also shake-up our complacent, southern-dominated political class, leaving all parts of our islands better off.

ALTHOUGH FOOTBALL doesn’t thrill me to the marrow, I’ve become interested in how the England manager Roy Hodgson can look so miserable while earning £3.5m a year.

And it’s not as if running a national side which has spent decades establishing low expectations can involve much stress, or even work. What, after he’s selected his dullest suit and tie (evidently his first duty of the day) does he do on mornings when there’s no match imminent and all his players are otherwise engaged on club duty? Macramé?

Still, it was good to see England beating Switzerland on Monday, following their crushing 1-0 victory against the mighty Norwegians (says he, making a rare venture into sarcasm).

It allowed us to suspend our disbelief for a little longer, so that we can continue to pretend that England might win the Euro championships and that Roy Hodgson’s salary – which, at the last world cup, was the second highest among national managers – will one day seem a good deal for English football fans scrimping and saving to travel abroad and pay his wages.

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