The Grand Union means my boat, a Grand Union Large Woolwich motor boat, on of eighty six pairs of boats and butties built in the mid to late thirties, following an even larger order of slightly shallower drafted boats from 1934 onwards. A Grand scheme for the Grand Union. An act, it turned out, of great hubris – or so at least it appeared with hindsight. Did they not see war coming? Was it too late? Or did they think the war would be the making of them?
Many of these boats never went into service. But was it because of the war? Was it really because there weren’t the men available to steer them? Inland waterways transport was a reserved occupation. Would so many of this famously insular, illiterate, separate, community have deliberately not just volunteered, but insisted, on going to fight? How many of them would even have been young enough? Perhaps it was that goods were no longer arriving by sea in such quantities, and not leaving either – the mainstay of the Grand Union’s trade. Maybe the war didn’t make that much difference. Maybe trade, even on this greatest of England’s canals, was already dwindling, and its people moving onto the land; retiring, dying, and not being replaced. Perhaps if wider boats had been introduced sooner, perhaps perhaps, and maybe.
If the war didn’t kill the Grand Union, its aftermath did. While most of England’s narrow canals had long since, famously, been put out of business by the railways, it took the rise of the lorry to put the final nail in the coffin of the Grand Union – and after the war there were lorries galore, and the men looking for work who could drive them, and the men looking to set up the businesses to employ them.
After that, canal carrying was no longer a mainstream occupation carried out by the people who had traditionally done it for centuries – adapting to the times with motor boats and electric light, but carrying more tradition that any other working class profession. The aftermath of the war was the start of the canal as a place for misfits and rebels; not dropouts at first, but working, and working bloody hard. Young, middle class men seeking a challenge and, perhaps, the dignity of labour. Roughening their hands and blackening their faces and punishing their muscles, hauling coal, nearly always, the last product it made economic sense to shift by water. Just. This tiny renaissance, this Indian summer, was rained on by the arrival of oil, which revolutionised the powering of jam factories and paper mills as it turned so much else upside down. Surely it is above all oil (and not silicon) which has made our lives today all but unrecognisable to someone from merely fifty years ago, if they hadn’t been here to witness the transition.
Without silicon and all it stands for we wouldn’t have computers, tablets (or the whole new meaning of that word), smartphones, or the internet. Granted. But we wouldn’t have those things without oil either – the oil to make the plastics that encase those devices’ intelligence; the oil to extract and transport the precious rare elements they devour; the oil to produce the heat to manufacture them and then again to ship them, literally, to us. And without oil, cheap, plentiful oil, how different would our domestic lives look and feel. No plastic, and none of the bright colours our plastic products encapsulate. So many fewer imported goods; nothing so cheap, and therefore nothing so plentiful, and then, of course, nothing so disposable. No incinerators; massive landfills merely middens. Less stuff; more precious stuff. I remember being struck by a scene in one of Flora Thompson’s books, in which a rural labouring family buys a new tea set. For them, this is a once in a generation purchase, anticipated perhaps for years. To make it, they have to wait until the annual fair. They are not a particularly poor family, within their local context, but this represents a significant investment, and is treasured as such. Because it is treasured, it gives them great pleasure. The anticipation of buying it, the careful choice, is probably greater than we today would invest in buying a car, and then there is the constant pleasure of using it, often accompanied by the memory of the day it was bought, the fair, the ribbons, the dressing up and the fairings. And the old tea set – only the items that are broken of course, and beyond use – that goes, piece by broken piece on the midden. Imagine a society in which so little was thrown away that each household had its own individual rubbish tip, and was not overwhelmed by it in a matter of years, if not months. Imagine if you had to keep everything you threw out at the bottom of your garden.
I digress. From the Grand Union to the transformation of our lives by oil. But that’s what canals do. They transport you from one place to another, via an often winding route, so slowly and with so many distractions, that you don’t notice the transition.