Oliver Cross: Ducks are good but there’s nowt so fascinating as folk

WATER'S EDGE: A jogger runs with his dog along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at Five Rise Locks.
WATER'S EDGE: A jogger runs with his dog along the Leeds and Liverpool Canal at Five Rise Locks.
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I’ve been studying ducks, which is quite an agreeable pastime, although not as much fun as ducking studies.

Ducks, I found on a trip along the Leeds-Liverpool canal, are a kind of metaphor for the good life, although, judging by their most common sounds, which are restrained grumblings and tuts rather than quacks, they don’t realise it.

They are gregarious and tolerant and seem to accept the companionship of all other members of the Water Birds Union, including geese, swans, moorhens and even gulls (although the swans are a little stand-offish, as they’re entitled to be).

Mallards apparently mate with just about any other duck which will have them, including white farmyard varieties, so the side of the canal is lined with half-breeds and anomalies of all shades and sizes and they all get along swimmingly, like a vision of inner-city harmony as presented by a 1980s Coca-Cola advertisement.

They move according to their own rules, scattering and regrouping in an apparently random way so that, if you watch them for long enough, you become mesmerised by their movement patterns and sitting by the canal has the same feel as staring at a lava lamp.

But fascinating as water-fowl are, they can’t really compete with the humans me and my partner Lynne met along the way on our very slow progress from the Kirstall canal marina to the top of the five-rise locks in Bingley; about 20 minutes by train but a week by our shared-ownership narrow-boat, including frequent stops to extract full value from our bus passes.

So at the Cartwright Hall in Bradford, a grand Victorian art gallery, we met a young British Asian so full of enthusiasm that we thought he might explode. He was bursting to tell us about a project he took part in during last year’s cultural Olympiad and which is now the basis of an impressive display at Cartwright Hall.

Young Bradfordians combined to create clothes suitable for a grand Edwardian society ball, using cloth woven on one of the city’s last working looms, which, more’s the pity, is in the industrial museum. Our young guide was particularly keen to show us the reversible waistcoat he had made, particularly because, despite Bradford’s great textile heritage, he had never sewed anything before. Then he had to rush off to get to work, probably in a call centre.

Above Bingley (and ‘above’ is the word because when you get to the top of the five-rise locks, you feel like you’ve climbed an alp), we met another young enthusiast who made us feel that the future of the country is probably in good hands.

It was at a big, old-fashioned rather shabby pub of the type which you expect to be boarded up and the signs said it was both the Royal and the Thai Royal, which created a confusion over whether it was a pub or a restaurant.

Luckily, it turned out to be both, so we enjoyed a thoroughly good meal while sprawling around (something you can do in pubs but less so in restaurants) and listening to the charming daughter of the restaurant-franchise owner telling us, like the young man from Cartwright Hall, how proud she was of her work.

She was of south-east Asian extraction but, by the sound of her, definitely Yorkshire as well and was doing college courses including catering and business studies. She wanted us to give an opinion on the soup, which she had made from scratch according to her own recipe. It was utterly brilliant.

Bidding farewell to the great concrete monster

This week, probably behind the rest of the world, I learned that the building I invested most of my working life in is doomed.

There’s been an application to demolish the old Yorkshire Post Newspapers headquarters in Wellington Street, Leeds, and I can’t think that there will be a queue of people lining up to save it. It may be (a word I hate) iconic, but it’s also plug-ugly.

It was opened in 1970 by that champion of traditional architecture, Prince Charles, a fact which used to make me smile every time I passed the plaque commemorating the event.

When I arrived in the building, about 30 years ago, it was on the edge of leaving the Caxton age of hot metal and astonishingly-skilled compositors and entering the electronic world, where an intelligent 17-year-old can achieve what would once have involved years of apprentice training.

So the great concrete monster which has consumed so many of my working hours has become as unnecessary as a Yorkshire coal mine or textile mill. That’s life.

Dictionary decision leaves me literally lost for words

May I be the last pedant in the country to regret the Oxford English Dictionary’s decision to allow the use of the word ‘literally’ to mean ‘metaphorically’?

Fiona McPherson, the OED’s senior editor, says that if enough people use a word in a particular way for a sufficiently long time, it will find its way into the dictionary, so it’s become acceptable to say, as a way of dramatising things, “when I looked at my bank balance, I literally died” or “when I saw the range of top fashion items available from Primark, I was literally in heaven.”

Which, although I’ve got a certain sympathy with that second statement, is still wrong, particularly if, like me, you are cursed with a very literal mind.

A colleague of mine once used, in an article I was sub-editing, the phrase “I literally jumped out of my skin”, which is now apparently acceptable but which alarmed me considerably at the time because literally jumping out of your skin, for a literal-minded person like me, produces a terrifying picture of flayed muscles and dripping blood vessels.

I thought for a moment of changing it to “I figuratively jumped out of my skin” but could see that this wouldn’t deliver much on the drama front and so left it simply as “I jumped out of my skin”. It didn’t make much sense but it didn’t, as it would have if I had retained the word ‘literally’, make nonsense either.

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