Book Review: Wilts and Berks Canal Revisited

This is my local canal network. I have walked what remains and is accessible in my area, aided in my search for remains of the waterway by historic maps put online by the National Library of Scotland (a fabulous resource for walkers interested in social and economic history). The photographs and associated text in this book were therefore of particular interest.

Opening with a brief history of the Wilts and Berks Canal, what follows is a collection of historic photographs that offer glimpses into key features along the waterway’s sixty mile route. This canal ran from Abingdon (where it joined the Thames River) to Semington (where it joined the Kennet and Avon Canal). Much has fallen into disrepair after a century of neglect although sections are now being restored by volunteers. If it is to become navigable again there will be a need to reroute around a number of modern developments.

The photographs in this collection are divided into nine geographic sections. These include branches built to link the canal to the market towns of Calne and Chippenham, and also the North Wilts Canal that ran from the Wilts and Berks Canal in Swindon to Latton, where it met the Thames and Severn Canal.

Many of the images included are from the twentieth century. They show not just the waterway but also associated bridges, locks and buildings. These remained long after the canal was abandoned. Some are still in existence.

The first boat completed its through voyage along the Wilts and Berks Canal in 1810. By 1874 the nearby GWR railway had taken much of the canal’s trade, and shareholders wished to close or sell. This was not permitted. Business struggled on for almost three decades before a section of aqueduct near the village of Stanley collapsed, the water draining into the Marden river. This damage was not repaired. Conspiracists may ponder if the damage was deliberate. Remains of the structure can still be seen today.

The degenerating waterway became a concern in certain areas due to the smell of stagnant water and the rubbish that was dumped in the now unused ‘stinking ditch’. Over time locks and bridges were dismantled to provide building materials. Sections of the canal bed were filled in, ploughed over or built upon. Where available, the photographs show these changes.

The author has annotated each photograph providing context and further information. With restoration work ongoing those interested may check his website which contains links to updates.

As the title suggests, this is the second photographic history of the Wilts and Berks Canal that the author has curated. I would now be interested in acquiring the first.

Wilts and Berks Canal Revisited is published by The History Press.

My copy of this book was given to me by my son.


Book Review: Place Waste Dissent


Place Waste Dissent, by Paul Hawkins, presents the reader with a monochrome kaleidoscope of imagery overlaid with the bleak poetry of personal experience and anarchy. Using a scrapbook of cut up photographs, legal notices and rough typed words it documents the events of the Claremont Road protests against the proposed M11 link road in east London in the early 1990s.

In the wake of compulsory purchase orders, the derelict properties were inhabited by squatters and other protesters against the government imposed demolition of homes to make way for roads. The lengthy dispute brought to the public attention how radical dissent could not be easily subjugated. If law and order are to be maintained there must be a willingness to comply or a fear of the consequences. Those who have nothing to lose are difficult to control.

The book opens with the story of Dolly Watson who had lived at 32 Claremont Road for her entire life. She had survived the blitz, although the experience had left her fearful of fire. At the time of the protests she was all but housebound, unable to climb her stairs. She got by on a morning sherry, porridge, tea and a 40 a day smoking habit, neighbours doing the little shopping she required. After all that Dolly had seen and experienced throughout her long life she saw no reason to leave her home. The arrival of the squatters and protesters added colour, the grandchildren she had never had.

Interspersed with the personal stories of a few of the Claremont Road occupiers, many of whom spend their days high on drink and drugs, are snippets from the summons, threats and surveillance operations that were enacted in an attempt to drive the troublesome individuals out. None of it worked. When the police stepped up the measures they were willing to use to force evictions, so too did the residents. They chained themselves to pipes, walls and each other. By the end the houses were being demolished around them, great chunks being removed with protesters still attached.

Fascinating though these details are, it is the strength of the presentation that gives this book its edge. It is performance art on the page, an installation with time as the third dimension rather than space.

The work is full of static and flux. Although the stories of Dolly, and a young girl they call Flea, are poignant, many of the protesters are far from admirable in the way they live their lives. This is presented raw. What comes across is that these are people who have fallen through the cracks created by a society which values corporate success over caring for those who are less able to cope, or who are unwilling to become cogs in the mechanisms that keep the privileged in power.

Dolly remembers the unemployed of 1907, those left homeless by the war, the endless fighting in far away places throughout her lifetime. The arrival of the squatters did not surprise her:

“they did that everywhere in London after the war, they had to live somewhere and it’s the same today…”

Running roughshod over the needy, blaming them for their predicament, will not make them go away. The poor have always been amongst us, they have nowhere else to go. This book is a timely reminder that it only takes a few determined individuals to tear down the facade of order. Injustice breeds discontent. This powerful work documents how damaging that can be for all.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Influx Press.




Book Review: You Are Here


You Are Here, by Chris Hadfield, is a collection of 192 photographs taken from the International Space Station. The photographs are divided by continent and represent one idealised orbit of the earth. Each is accompanied by a comment from the author where he shares his observations on topography, geology and how man has shaped the land over time.

From space there is ample evidence of man, although nature paints a more varied and visually stunning landscape. The author points out where the shape of a promontory or other feature is reminiscent of an animal, an eye or the human brain. He brings humour to the pictures as well as insight.

Perspective of man’s occupation of this small planet is gained from the vastness of the areas in which there are no visible signs of his presence. The biggest cities are tiny whereas the deserts and plains stretch out to the horizon. The distance and scale of the shots are most obvious where the curvature of the earth can be seen in the distance.

Where signs of man’s activity exist they also provide sadness, such as where the gush of orange in the seas around Madagascar show the rivers carrying away topsoil due to deforestation, silting up the inlets. The night shots show lights that are brightest where man’s ambition hopes to be rewarded at whatever cost to the planet that sustains him.

I was struck by how futile are our efforts to control the whims of nature. From space the shaping of our world is shown to have been affected by meteors, volcanoes, earthquakes and the constantly changing climate over millennia. Any order which man has imposed can so easily be wiped out by any one of these events.

Naturally I was intrigued by the photographs that featured places I know personally. I was struck by the author’s comment that the only indication of real time human activity below is where there is enough plane traffic to create significant numbers of cross hatched contrails. These gave him comfort, that life as he knew it continued. Space must be a lonely place.

The book itself is of high quality, ideal for flicking through and admiring the awe inspiring prints. Read from cover to cover it provides an insight into both the vastness of the land and the arbitrary nature of the borders over which we as a species expend so much concern.

For those interested in our planet and in the view of it from afar this book is fascinating. A beautiful collection of photographs taken from a place that most of us can never hope to go.


Memories and other fictional stories

The Remember the Time Blog Hop has not vanished, but it has changed from weekly to monthly. It also has a brand new badge! This month’s theme is: write about your earliest memory. 


My first, clear memories are not my own. They are photographs in an old chocolate box, carefully stored away in my parent’s wardrobe. They are points of discussion when family members get together.

‘Do you remember when…. ?’ and often I do. But I think of that time as a moment in a long distant childhood. My memories are not ordered chronologically, but by merit or significance in a life that is now gone.

My cousin shared a photograph on Facebook of all the young cousins standing outside a house. I think I remember that day, but cannot be sure. I remember the photograph clearly, how my sister hated it because she was the tallest and disliked her height, how the youngest would not stand still while the image was captured. Do I  remember when it was taken though, or a copy of the picture that was given to my mother, that I have looked at many times since?

I have a photograph of my brother, in the driveway of our parent’s house with his first motorbike. I remember that day, desperately wanting to ride behind him after he offered my sister this privilege. I am told that he used his motorbike to transport him to and from school, yet I can only recall when he was at our childhood home during university vacations, not when he lived there full time. I do not recall seeing him in school uniform; we have no photographs of that. My memories are muddled, disordered, yet my feelings from that bike day seem clear.

Times captured in photographs, music or significant events stand out. There was the night when my sister and I made too much noise after lights out and my father, who left it to my mother to discipline us, came up and shouted angrily, reducing us to tears. There was the day when our garden was being dug over for a vegetable patch, and we threw clods of earth onto a neighbours path. My mother beat us for embarrassing her with our inexplicable behaviour.

I remember locking myself in my bedroom when the handle had been removed to allow the door to be painted. I pulled out the exposed mechanism from the inside and then could not replace it. I had to drop it out the window to allow my mother to release me. What age was I then? I have no idea.

Sometimes I recall an event that I remember as having happened when I was perhaps eight or nine years old. When I put it into context alongside a song or a recorded historical event, I realise that I must have been twelve or thirteen. I recoil at the idea that I was still so childish at that age.

There are memories that are mine and mine alone. Events that involved other family members, but which they do not recall. What was significant to me passed them by, or has been interpreted quite differently in their minds.

When older family members talk of events from their children’s childhood, their recollections are often at odds with those held by the now adult child. It makes me distrustful of my own memories. At what point do we start to weave our prejudices and subsequent experiences into what we think we remember from before? Life may be linear but memory is not.

I have worked hard to give my children happy experiences to look back on, yet recognise that what they remember from their childhood is unlikely to be what I hoped and intended. Already my daughter mentions events that affected her negatively, yet cannot recall activities that were planned so carefully for her benefit.

In my head my first memory is of lying in a carrycot on the back seat of my father’s car with my brother looking down on me. If I was young enough to be in a carrycot then surely I was too young to form a lasting memory; I do not even know if my father had a car when I was this age. Could a memory be formed many years later from events that I have merely been told happened?

It can be lovely to get together with an old friend and recall shared history, reminiscing, reminding each other of the detail of forgotten escapades. How much is this weaving together of good times gone by an act of creation? How much is memory affected by where we are here and now?