‘The Cut’ wasn’t all ‘roses & castles’ and shining brasses; working life, particularly in the industrial heartlands of the Midlands, was mundane, gruelling, repetitive, demanding and relentless.

Even in this era of heritage and recreational canals and, despite the fact that canal carrying on an industrial scale ended 50 years ago, the waterways continue to carry echoes of the people and the work, a legacy of dirt and toil and heavy industry. The two images below, bought recently, provide a couterbalance to other canal postacards/photos in the ‘Quiddity of the Cut’ series of posts. They’re taken in the Black Country on the Birmingham Canal Navigation, and provide ample evidence of the harsher realities and beauty of this watery netherworld.

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Pencil notes on the back of the photo read: Birmingham Canal Navigation : Old main line (…) first bridge E of ‘High Bridge’. Open butty – owned A. Stevens. Tug JUDITH ANN (cabin is half length of boat) – owned Stevens & Keay. Flat sterned open butty with tractor adapted for dredging on board and short cabin boat BEVERLEY – owned Stevens & Keay. 27/4/74

The snippets of poems below, by Liz Berry from her wonderful first collection Black Country (Chatto Poetry ISBN 978 0 701 18857 3) bring the story of the area up-to-date. They reflect that abiding echo, and the perverse romance of the Cut in the city. Tipton-On-Cut “Come wi’ me, bab, wum to Tipton-on-Cut, the real Little Venice, reisty and wild as the midden in August. We’ll glide along Telford’s fabled waterways on board Summat in the Waerter or Our Wench of Brum. Or like Lady Godiva, we’ll trot in on an oss who’s guttling clover at the edge of the bonk.” (wum home; cut canal; guttling chewing; bonk bank) or the sing-song, chant of Gosty Hill “Out of the cut at Gosty Hill, I fished a marble-stoppered bottle. Opened, it sang… Come to me by Iris, Rose of Sharon, by Speedwell, Teasel, Ragwort, Yarrow by Jenny Wren, Dove, Squalor, Throstle, I’ll be waitin at Delph Run with brick in me ond.” If the stanzas above have whetted your appetite I’d reccommend the book, it’s well worth a read.

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Pencil notes on back of the photo read: Birmingham Canal Navigation (OLDBURY?) Alan (‘Caggy’ Stevens (…) – wearing hat and Terry – visible shovelling rubbish from ? to RALEIGH. Far side of canal GEORGE (hidden) LENARD carrying grab (from ‘Fordson tractor’). Foreground TERENCE 16 tug JUDITH ANN / RALEIGH BCN 18821? 15/7/73 Bromford Steel Works, Oldbury

FURTHER READING Liz Barry’s website HERE The Guardian review of Black Country HERE Forward Arts Foundation profile of Liz Berry HERE IMG_5900 (3)

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One thought on “Reflections on a Postcard… 4. ‘Black Country’

  1. Dear Nick, it’s lovely to come across your blog and read about ‘Eileen’ and I’m happy that you enjoyed the poems. Could you please get in touch with me? It’s just about permissions for reprinting poems in full? Thank you, Liz

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