Thursday, February 21, 2019
Before Aickman - William Bliss, Elegist of the English Waterways
The Inland Waterways Association, dedicated to saving Britain’s canals, was founded in 1946 and, as is well-known, among its luminaries were two ghost story writers, Robert Aickman and L T C Rolt. What is less well-known is that two other literary figures had earlier written about the sad state of the country’s canals and rivers, and published books describing the pleasures (and frustrations) of using them, and encouraging others to do so.
Their quiet campaign began with an essay on ‘English Waterways’ in the December 1930 issue of the literary journal The London Mercury. This was edited by one of the duo, the poet and man-of-letters J.C. Squire, and the piece was written by his friend and fellow riparian William Bliss, who also wrote reviews for the journal, eg of the poetry of the Georgian poets John Freeman and Edmund Blunden. His article gives an evocative description of the loneliness and decay of the canals, over a decade before Aickman and Rolt began to campaign on this issue.
He went on to write at greater length on the same theme in a number of books. The first of these was The Heart of England by Waterway (Witherby, 1933), and Bliss explains that some of the minor canals are already far gone in decay:
‘But these canals have long been derelict, and only here and there a line of sedge or a patch of golden iris or a tangle of alder or a row of willows, looking lost without the water at their knees, mark its course. They are going one by one, and I am writing this about them before they go, so that anybody who reads and who has never yet experienced the peaceful beauty, the sleepy contentment that is peculiar to these English waterways, may do so before it is too late.’
Bliss’ book is lyrical and elegiac, sometimes reminding me of the charged, mystical prose of Arthur Machen. He does not shirk describing the inconveniences of his journeys, and occasionally remembers to give practical advice, such as which course to take through rapids or round sweeping bends, but mostly this is not a ‘how to’ sort of book. Rather it is a reverie upon a rare and little-known world, remote from diurnal concerns, lonely, largely undisturbed, with its own singular charm.
It is hard to avoid the impression that Bliss actually quite likes it this way. L T C Rolt once wrote that he had not realised the effect the waterways campaign would have in changing the character of the lost canals he loved, and there is a distinctly wistful suggestion that he later somewhat regretted drawing attention to them. And there may have been a similar ambivalence with Bliss, I suspect. But he seems to have been a man of robust good sense, and his books are not at all rarefied. There is also just a touch, eg when he and his occasional companions get into difficulties, of the bantering tone of Jerome K Jerome's Three Men in a Boat.
Bliss followed this pioneering book with two others of a similar nature. Though his guides increasingly contain practical information, such as about distances, locks, bridges, and mooring places, they remain at heart lovingly-written literary work, and the more beguiling because of this. Canoeing: the art and practice of canoeing on English rivers, navigations and canals: with a description and tables of distances of the canoeable water-ways of England and Wales, etc (Methuen, 1934) has practical opening chapters about selecting a canoe and camping equipment and so on, but the second part is more like the evocative reflections in his earlier book. It had an introduction by the humorist and independent M.P., A P Herbert.
This was followed by Rapid Rivers (Witherby, 1935). Bliss also published the autobiographical reminiscences Pilgrimage of Grace (Witherby, 1937), and a study, The Real Shakespeare: A Counterblast to Commentators (Sidgwick and Jackson, 1947).
J C Squire gave his own account of some of their adventures in Water Music, with its punning sub-title, or a Fortnight of Bliss (Heinemann, 1939) and also in episodes in some of his other books. His own book is full of diversions and digressions and backwaters, but there is no mistaking his affection for Bliss and his relish for the life on the river. What comes across both in Squires’ anecdotes and, as it were, between the lines of Bliss’ books, is what an amiable individual he was, out for adventure, uncomplaining of discomfort, and also alert to those moments of mystical rapture that arise in the secret shimmering silver and green worlds he traverses.
William Bliss’ role as a pioneer of waterways journeys has only recently been recognised by a few canal enthusiasts, as for example at the Narrow Boat Albert blog, which also reports that some present day boaters have devised a William Bliss Canoe Trail, following some of the routes he described.
His books are therefore now rather hard to find. But he ought also to be sought after by lovers of fine literature, the same sort of reader who enjoys not only Aickman and Rolt, but also the work of Machen, Edward Thomas, George Borrow, and the other great wanderers in the wild places.
Image: frontispiece of The Heart of England by Waterway, showing its author afloat (from the Narrow Boat Albert blog).