A to B: Floating nowhere in particular at four miles per hour

Alan White drifts through the British canal network. Barring some unpleasantness at a lock, it is a bucolic week.

As the Oxford Canal passes Rugby, we see ghosts among the conifers and the grey flickers of out-of-town retail parks and industrial estates. We see them in bricked up tunnels, in old footpaths, in the viaduct that looms over the local golf course, in a long depression that runs through the nearby fields.

This landscape was once very different. The Leicester and Rugby Railway, the Great Central Railway and the Rugby and Stamford Railway all crossed the waterway within the space of a mile. The canal itself took a different, meandering route, veering north for a couple of miles to cross the River Swift, then looping back south to cross the River Avon. As our guidebook notes: “Paid by the mile, the contractors must have laughed all the way to the bank.”

But this was a different time. There was no need to spare expense: the canal was to be one of the most profitable transport networks in Britain, shifting masses of coal from the Midlands to London, along with some stone and agricultural products. The waterway was modernised in 1834 in response to a proposal for a London and Birmingham canal that would bypass Oxford completely. It never happened, but the Oxford company had money to burn, so it shortened the route by 11 miles with a series of embankments and aqueducts.

This “modern” route remains the same, and for the next week it will be home for the three of us. The diesel engine at the stern hums. Civilisation recedes. I light a cigarette. We're flitting between the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire borders. The landscape is verdant now, the past little more than shadows – Victorian canal company insignias on passing concrete fence posts, the crenulations of nearby fields from the ridges and furrows of mediaeval farmers, the trackbed of the old Great Central Railway hiding behind the foliage.

We’ve known each other for years. We’ve nothing important to say. One sits at the front of the boat, alone, the other two by the tiller, in silence, for hours. If we do talk, it’s quiet and terse – where we might stop, or things we can see. Occasionally, an adjective spills out, unacknowledged. “Pretty.”

Work, gossip about our other friends, the detritus of life: all recede slowly into the distance. We start drinking the whiskey once we’re a few miles out of Rugby. We’ll be encased in a soft blanket of booze every day: never quite wrecked, never quite crisp. We travel at a steady four miles per hour. Time eats distance – it takes over an hour to reach Hillmorton locks; a journey that would have taken 10 minutes by car.


The lock is the canal’s ingenious answer to gradients. It’s a chamber with gates at either end that either fills or empties with water according to whether the boat passing through is heading up or down the slope. We see the gates a few hundred yards up ahead. Two of us grab our wrenches, jump off the boat, and jog down the towpath, while the other cuts the engine and waits. We arrive at the gate and inspect the lock. It’s empty, so the two of us get down and begin to shove on the huge timber beam attached to the gate. It swings open, and we signal for the boat to begin its steady progress into the narrow chamber.

Once inside, we shove the gate closed, then I walk across the top of it to the opposite towpath. We make our way up to the gate at the other end. Now it’s time to fill the lock with water. We just have to walk up to the paddles on either side, attach our windlasses to the spindles, release the safety catches, and gradually raise them, allowing water from the higher level to enter the chamber. It’s a simple process, but there are plenty of things that could go wrong. The boat can catch on the lock wall, gate or cill, which would flood or even sink it. If accidentally released, the windlass can fly off the spindle: a heavy lump of metal travelling at that speed could cause a serious injury. The closed gates, which we use as a makeshift bridge, are barely a foot wide and often slippy. It can be a long drop into the chamber, and the flowing water means anyone who falls in will be not only cold, but less buoyant.

None of these things are likely. But if you work the locks enough – and we will, at least a few dozen times in the course of this trip - you know it’s a good idea to have your wits vaguely about you. It’s on our third day that something goes wrong. We arrive at a lock to find a middle-aged lady already in the process of emptying it so her boat, piloted by her husband, can pass in the opposite direction to us.

Women like her are one of many peculiar elements of canal life. You’ll see many retired couples. Typically, they’ll own an opulent boat that’s their pride and joy, and will be accompanied by a small dog. In every single case the man will drive the boat, while the woman - never a day under 50 - will do the heavy physical labour of the lock work. On our boat there are two of us working the locks, both in our thirties, and we’re exhausted at the end of every day. These women never seem perturbed by the bizarre division of labour. It’s just how it’s done on the canals.

This woman is typical of her kind - small, wirily strong, and accompanied by a border collie that seems only slightly more energetic than her. We exchange small talk: the only kind you can have at a lock. Generally, you ask where someone’s stopping. Then you ask what’s there, even though you know. I cross to the other side of the canal and get to work on the other paddle.

The problem starts once we’ve emptied the lock and are beginning to open the gates to allow her husband out. He nods a gruff acknowledgement. He doesn’t like us. We’re too young, and our card is marked by the fact we’re driving a hire boat rather than one we own. As the gate begins to swing open, the woman’s dog takes a sudden liking to me. It runs to the end of the lock and onto the gate just as it begins to move. Suddenly, what was a bridge is now a 15-foot-drop into an ice cold canal with a boat weighing at least a dozen tons powering through it.

The dog looks ahead to see its walkway disappear, and digs its claws into the top of the gate, cowering. The woman begins to scream. The man begins to shout something, but his voice is drowned out by the engine. The dog looks up at me, tensing its legs as it gets ready to jump across to my side of the bank. He won’t make it - with every millisecond that passes, the gap from gate to bank is getting wider.

I scream: “Stay!” and hold my hand up, desperate the dog will do as it’s told. It feigns to jump, but instead remains on the gate, shivering. “Stay!” “Stay!” The boat passes. I frantically heave against the gate’s timber beam to close it. The dog scampers across to me and wags its tail as if nothing has happened. The woman runs over and thanks me, curtly. She thinks I accidentally called the dog over to me, but doesn't want to say anything.

I suspect her thanks would have been curt regardless. We’ve broken the rules of the canal by involving her in a situation for which more was called than basic social interaction. There’s a strange, almost oriental formality to the exchanges that take place around the locks. It’s not that people on the canal are unfriendly. It’s that there’s a mutual understanding they’ve chosen this place because they want to escape everything else.

You have the retired couples, of course - and the more you travel the more you begin to pick out the subtle variations in wealth and class. More middle class generally means a more homely boat: there’ll be a garden growing on the roof, and a kitchen festooned with pictures of their offspring. Copy of the Mail somewhere. Upper-middle class generally means a more nautical vibe. Lots of bottles of wine on board, matching sweaters draped over the handrail; a boat name, hand painted in gold, like “Serenity” or “Wind Dancer”. I’ve seen an HMS before. They take the Telegraph.

Most of these people are on holiday. But then you have the other crowd: the full timers. And these are really interesting. The most recognisable subset is the ageing hippies. Their boat will be decorated with some Roger Dean-style purples and greens that make it look like the cover of a prog rock album. The unmistakably sweet smell of weed will waft from the boat’s innards, along with the squeals of Electric Ladyland. It’s a laughable cliché, but you barely remark on it after a day or two.


Of more interest are the other main breed of full time dwellers. They’re constantly on the move: many of them will only be allowed to stay in one spot for 14 days, unless they have permission from the local authority. They’re hard to pin down in other ways. They look rather like the middle class retirees, but they’ve turned feral. The beautifully-kept roof garden will be replaced by piles of firewood and fuel drums. Scruffy, basic clothes will be clustered on a miniature washing horse nearby. They look rather more bedraggled than their hippy counterparts.

And in a way, they’re more interesting than the genuine mysteries we glimpse on the water - the shady looking guys who look like old school crooks; the man we glimpse through his window surrounded by dozens of laptops and hard drives, whom we can only imagine is something to do with GCHQ; the narrow boat that’s been designed to look like a naval warship - those are mysteries that have a rational solution, of some kind.

No: for these relatively normal couples, the mystery is more human. They really have left society behind: for many long stretches the canal runs along the bottom of fields and is barely accessible to the public on foot, let alone by car. At what point did they say to themselves: this is it? Rare visits to any kind of shop that isn’t a post office store or located in the back of a pub, no neighbours, minimal water and electricity – it’s as basic an existence as one could choose, one chosen by an estimated 50,000 people in Britain, and entirely unnoticed by the rest of the country. Theirs is a quieter, gentler existence, utterly detached from the clamour of modern life.

And that’s why there’s this enforced formality and it’s why all these subcultures interact just fine on the occasions they run into each other: the deeply conservative retirees, the hippies, the full timers – not to mention us – because they all have one thing in common. Something about society has repulsed them – if in our case only momentarily – and they want escape. They may not see eye-to-eye on anything else, but they do on that, and it’s enough.

At the village of Braunston we’re confronted with the only choice of direction we will have all journey. The junction is the meeting point of two main arteries - the Grand Union, which runs towards Birmingham, and the canal we’re on, heading south to Oxford. Two hundred years ago this would have been a bustling intersection, with a steady flow of steamers and horse drawn boats. Today it’s an unremarkable little village, though it still boasts a crowded marina and a few boat building yards. It’s the busiest place we’ll see until we return to Rugby.

Four hours further on, and the canal snakes round to the left, around the base of Napton Hill. It’s a stunning sight. A view is no more than a perspective; but ours is unique. The emerald mound looms high, dappled with sunflowers and, perched on its crest, we can just make out a recently-restored windmill. We roll around its circumference, and moor up. The low sun sears the sky blood red as it dips below the horizon. We prepare a barbeque as a chill begins to gather in the evening air and the stars blink into life. This journey is all about tomorrow.

We rise early, and hurry through Napton’s locks. After a couple of hours we’re through: we’ve reached the canal’s summit. For eleven miles now, we’ll drift through the last ebbs of the morning mist, first past fields and flocks of sheep, then heavy vegetation punctuated only by red brick footbridges. Every hour or so a boat might pass; otherwise, we won’t see another soul. We see every blossom and field in high definition, yet the progress will be so slow and the sights so unrelentingly rural that the gradual changes in the scenery barely register. It's with a sudden, tender shock that you realise a line of foliage has been supplanted by a never ending horizon of fields. There are no historical shadows, no potential pubs or shops at which to stop. Our phones have been switched off since the day began: an unspoken rule. Anything could have happened in the outside world. There is silence.

We’re alone, together. In response, my mind conjures a buzz of static: the words in a break up letter (“That’s the paradox, of course: the pain hurts; the anaesthetic more so. One by one, each of those little curios disappears from my mind. What did we do together on your birthday last year? I know we did something good, I’m sure of it, but what was it again? Every day, a little bit more of the picture disappears forever. And here I am like some put-upon tenant when the bailiffs come round: please, let me keep this one, let me keep that one.”), then somehow the chord progression in an old song (A minor goes to C goes to D goes to F7 goes back to Ami and then it’s C then E7 or Ami to E and back, or is it…), and now it’s the flight of a cricket ball with leg spin applied to it and…

And suddenly the chattering fades. My mind slows to a crawl. There is nothing but the imperative to drift ever onwards, past sights unseen, around the same curve, again and again. It's a calm I won't experience again all year. I came here for nothing.

This post is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of pieces on travel and transport.

A dog, a boat, a canal. Photograph: Getty Images

Alan White's work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National and the TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain's Gang Culture.

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Clive Lewis interview: I don't want to be seen as a future Labour leader

The shadow business secretary on his career prospects, working with the SNP and Ukip, and why he didn't punch a wall. 

“Lewis for leader!” Labour MP Gareth Thomas mischievously interjects minutes after my interview with Clive Lewis begins. The shadow business secretary has only been in parliament for 18 months but is already the bookmakers’ favourite to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. His self-assuredness, media performances and left-wing stances (he backed Corbyn in 2015 and again this year) have led many to identify him as Labour’s coming man.

On 19 September, I met Lewis - crop-haired, slim and wearing his trademark tweed jacket - in Westminster's Portcullis House. He conceded that he was flattered by the attention (“It’s lovely to hear”) but was wary of the mantle bestowed on him. “This place has lots of ex-would-be leaders, it’s littered with them. I don’t want to be one of those ex-would-be leaders,” the Norwich South MP told me. “I don’t want a big fat target on my head. I don’t want to cause the resentment of my colleagues by being some upstart that’s been here 18 months and then thinks they can be leader ... I’ve never asked for that. All I want to do is do my job and do it to the best of my ability.”

But he did not rule out standing in the future: “I think that anyone who comes into this place wants to do what’s best for the party and what’s best for the country - in any way that they can.”

Lewis, who is 45, was appointed to his current position in Labour’s recent reshuffle having previously held the defence brief. His time in that role was marked by a feud over Trident. Minutes before he delivered his party conference speech, the former soldier was informed that a line committing Labour to the project’s renewal had been removed by Corbyn’s office. Such was Lewis’s annoyance that he was said to have punched a wall after leaving the stage.

“I punched no walls,” he told me a month on from the speech. “Some people said to me ‘why don’t you just play along with it?’ Well, first of all it’s not true. And secondly, I am not prepared to allow myself to be associated with violent actions because it’s all too easy as a black man to be stereotyped as violent and angry - and I’m not. I’m not a violent person. Yes, it’s a bit of fun now, but very quickly certain elements of the media can begin to build up an image, a perception, a frame ... There’s a world of difference between violently punching a wall and being annoyed.”

Lewis said that he was “happy with” the speech he gave and that “you’re always going to have negotiation on lines”. The problem, he added, was “the timing”. But though the intervention frustrated Lewis, it improved his standing among Labour MPs who hailed him as the pragmatic face of Corbynism. His subsequent move to business was regarded by some as a punishment. “Do I think there was an ulterior motive? I’ll never know,” Lewis told me. “I’m confident that that the reason I was moved, what I was told, is that they wanted me to be able to take on a big portfolio”.

Nia Griffith, his successor as shadow defence secretary, has since announced that the party will support Trident renewal in its manifesto despite its leader’s unilateralism. “Jeremy Corbyn deserves credit for that,” Lewis said. “I think everyone understands that Jeremy’s position hasn’t changed. Jeremy still believes in unilateral disarmament, that is his modus operandi, that’s how he rolls and that’s one of the reasons why he is leader of the Labour Party ... But he’s also a democrat and he’s also a pragmatist, despite what people say.”

Lewis, himself a long-standing opponent of Trident, added: “You need a Labour government to ensure that we can put those nuclear missiles on the table and to begin to get rid of them on a global scale.”

He also affirmed his support for Nato, an institution which at times Corbyn has suggested should be disbanded. “The values that underpin Nato are social democratic values: liberty, democracy, freedom of expression. Let’s not forget, it was Clement Attlee and the New Deal Democrats that initiated and set up Nato. It’s about being in it to win it, it’s about winning the arguments inside Nato and making sure that it’s a force for good. Some people would say that’s impossible. I say you’ve got to be in it to be able to make those changes.”


Clive Anthony Lewis was born on 11 September 1971 and grew up on a council estate in Northampton. It was his Afro-Caribbean father, a factory worker and trade union official, who drew him to politics. “My dad always used to say “The Labour Party has fought for us, it’s really important that you understand that. What you have, the opportunities that working people and black people have, is down to the fact that people fought before you and continue to fight.”

After becoming the first in his family to attend university (reading economics at Bradford) he was elected student union president and vice president of the NUS. Lewis then spent a decade as a BBC TV news reporter and also became an army reservist, serving a tour of duty of Afghanistan in 2009. He was inspired to enlist by his grandfather. “He fought in Normandy in the Second World War and I used to go back over with him and see the camaraderie with the old paras ... Whatever people’s views of the armed forces, that’s one thing that no one can take away, they generate such friendships, such a bond of union”.

Lewis told me that his time in the military complemented, rather than contradicted, his politics. “I think many of the virtues and values of the army are very similar to the virtues and values of socialism, of the Labour Party. It’s about looking out for each other, it’s about working as a team, it’s about understanding. The worst insult I remember in the army is ‘jack bastard’. What that said was that you basically put yourself before the team, you’ve been selfish”.

He added: “People have to remember that the armed forces do as democratically elected governments tell them to do. They don’t arbitrarily go into countries and kick off. These are decisions that are made by our politicians.”

After returning from service in Helmand province, he suffered from depression. “I met guys who had lost friends, seen horrible things and they had ghost eyes, dead eyes, it’s the only way I can describe it. People that I saw had far more reason to have depression or worse. Part of my negative feedback loop was the fact that I felt increasingly guilty about being depressed because I didn’t feel that I had the right to be depressed because I knew people who’d seen far worse ...  I’m now told that is quite common but that doesn’t make it any easier.”

Lewis added: “It makes you realise that when the armed forces go abroad, when they do serve on our behalf, what they do, what they go through, that’s not something that anyone can take away from them.”

In May 2015, he was one of a raft of left-wing MPs (Richard Burgon, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Kate Osamor, Cat Smith) to enter parliament and back Corbyn’s leadership bid. As shadow business secretary, he believes that Brexit and Theresa May’s economic interventionism offer political openings for Labour. “I feel debate is moving onto natural Labour territory. But not the Labour territory of the 1970s, not picking winners territory. It’s moving to a territory that many on the left have long argued for, about having a muscular, brave, entrepreneurial state which can work in partnership with business”.

He added: “We can say we’re the party of business. But not business as usual ...  I think there are lots of people now, and businesses, who will be aghast at the shambles, the seeming direction we seem to be going in.

“The British people have spoken, they said they wanted to take back control, we have to respect that. But they didn’t vote to trash the economy, they didn’t vote for their jobs to disintegrate, they didn’t vote to see their businesses decimated, they didn’t vote to see a run on the pound, they didn’t vote for high levels of inflation.”

On the day we met, an Ipsos MORI poll put the Tories 18 points ahead of Labour (a subsequent YouGov survey has them 16 ahead). “I’m not too spooked by the polls at the moment,” Lewis told me when I mentioned the apocalyptic figures (he has a potentially vulnerable majority of 7,654). “Nobody wants to be where we are but I’m quite clear that once we get up a head of steam we’ll begin to see that narrow. I definitely don’t have any doubts about that, it will begin to narrow.”

Lewis is a long-standing advocate of proportional representation and of a “progressive alliance”. He told me that Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party should have fielded a single pro-European candidate in the recent Witney by-election (which the Conservatives won with a reduced majority) and that he was open to working with the SNP.

“There are lots of people, including the Scottish Labour Party, who are aghast that you can say that. I think it has to be put out there. I want to see a revival of Scottish Labour but we also have to be realistic about where they are, the time scale and timeframe of them coming back.

“I’m not talking them down, I’m simply saying that we want to see a Labour government in Westminster and that means asking some hard questions about how we’re going to achieve that, especially if the boundary changes come in ... If that means working with the SNP then we have to look at that.”

Even more strikingly, he suggested that Labour had to “think about talking to parties like Ukip to try and get over that finishing line.”

Lewis explained: “If Ukip survive as a political force these coming weeks and months they’re obviously pro-PR as well. I despise much of what Ukip stand for, it’s anathema to me, but I also understand that it could be the difference between changing our electoral system or not ... These are things that some people find deeply offensive but I’ve not come into politics to duck the tough issues." 

He praised Corbyn for “having won” the argument over austerity, for his “dignified” apology over the Iraq war and for putting Labour in surplus (owing to its near-tripled membership of 550,000).

“History will show that Jeremy Corbyn was someone who came in at a time when politics was tired, people were losing faith in it, especially people who come from the progressive side of politics.

“Whatever people think of Jeremy’s style, whatever they think of his leadership, whatever they think of him personally, you can’t take that away from him. He’s revived politics in a way that we haven’t seen in this country for a long time. I know he’s got his doubters and detractors but I think ultimately he’s made our party in many ways stronger than it was a year ago.”

I asked Lewis whether he expected Corbyn to lead Labour into the next general election. “Yes, I do. And I think it depends when that general election is. If it’s next year then most certainly.

“If it’s 2020? That’s a question for Jeremy. I think, as I understand it, he is going to but I don’t know the inside of his mind, I don’t know what he’s thinking. I haven’t heard anything to suggest that he has anything other than the intention to lead us into a general election and to become prime minister.”

Of his own prospects, he remained equanimous. “Always be wary of Greeks bearing gifts. It’s lovely to hear but I know my own fallibilities and weaknesses.

“I haven’t come from a background where I’ve had it imbued in me from an early age that I’m destined to lead or to rule. I don’t have that arrogant self-belief, the sense of entitlement that it’s coming my way or should do. I can’t believe I’m in the House of Commons and I can’t believe that I’m shadow business secretary. I still pinch myself. That’s enough for me at the moment, it really is. That’s the honest truth.”

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.