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From art shows to films, our canals are awash with culture

The Floating Cinema drops anchor on the Grand Union Canal at King's Cross, London

The Floating Cinema drops anchor on the Grand Union Canal at King’s Cross, London Photo: HYDAR DEWACHI

‘It’s really captured people’s imagination,” enthuse producer Anna Ramsay and
curator Laura Harford as they sit on the deck of the Floating Cinema, their
60ft wide-beam canal boat fitted out as a mini-Odeon. “I think it’s because
it’s something so unusual, not at all what they expect to see on a canal.
They stumble across us, come in and find it magical.”

The purpose-built boat – called Up And A Wave – is spending the summer wending
its way, at 4mph, along the network of canals, tunnels and locks that
criss-cross Greater London, stopping off en route with its pop-up programme
of documentary films, talks, discussions, community forums and workshops,
aimed at young and old.

Some take place in the sleek, 24-seat on-board auditorium, others on and
around the towpath, with the images beamed from the boat on to a screen.

Launched last year, with support from the Arts Council and The Legacy List,
the Olympic park charity, the Floating Cinema, is aiming to build on the
6,000 people who gave it a try in 2013, a target it will sail past,
according to Ramsay and Harford. “It’s been a huge success and has caused a
whole new generation to be drawn to the canal as a cultural hub.”

Down on the towpath, Up And A Wave is just one of a burgeoning and eclectic
range of on-the-water offerings around Britain’s 5,000 miles of canals that
are, some claim, fast transforming them into the country’s largest arts

The programme is huge: there are narrowboat-based theatre companies, such as
Mikron (alma mater of Mark Williams, who starred as Ron Weasley’s dad in the
Harry Potter films) and Magic Lantern; art installations and sculpture
trails next to lock gates; a stand-up comedy vessel called Pleasance Ahoy
heading for Edinburgh to a “book barge”; a floating troupe of trapeze
artists; and Slow Boat, an outpost of Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery that chugs
along the Grand Union Canal. There’s even a canal laureate.

The Canal & River Trust – the charity set up by the Government in 2012 to
replace the British Waterways quango in running a network that includes
2,700 listed structures, 50 scheduled monuments and five Unesco world
heritage sites – reports that 108,000 people got involved in activities in
2012-13, including 115 artists, as part of its Arts on the Waterways
programme. It has raised £2.5 million to make it happen.

“That change from quango to charity has coincided with a rising awareness of
canals as places to go for cultural experiences,” says Tim Eastop, the
executive producer of Arts on the Waterways. “A shift was required, and as a
major charity we have been able to prioritise new ways of enriching people’s
lives through the canal network. There’s so much potential. Canals can
enable the arts to get everywhere, whether it’s a busking festival on boats
in Hackney, or a big co-operation we did with the Royal Opera House to stage
The Owl and the Pussycat next to canals. There’s experimentation, anything
from small-scale initiatives up to major works such as The Line, a sculpture
walk this autumn on the banks of the River Lee near the Olympic Park that
will feature the likes of Damien Hirst.”

As well as the novelty of canals as arts venues – instead of their more usual
image as the haunt of dog-walkers, conservationists, and holiday makers
stepping back in time on a narrowboat holiday – Eastop believes they have
other selling points. “Canals run through rural areas, but they also go
right through the heart of our major cities, and in that urban context they
offer a place where people can slow down, where people can jump off the very
fast pace of everyday life in cities and try something different.”

Jo Bell, the Canal Laureate, has witnessed the turn-round on the towpaths.
“I’ve been living on a narrowboat for 12 years, and there really has been a
genuine shift in the past couple of years, a sense of things being possible
now and an excitement being generated. The past 60 years have been about
rebuilding the canal infrastructure after so much neglect; now we have a
great backdrop to spark a renaissance.”

Such a rapid change has, she says, inevitably caused a few tensions. “We
‘boaters’ [the 15,000 permanent residents on canals] sometimes have mixed
feelings about what we call ‘gongoozlers’, the people on the towpath who
stand at locks staring at us.”

The new influx of culture-seeking gongoozlers, then, has raised a few
eyebrows. One of the new initiatives, Locklines, where poetry from Bell, Roy
Fisher and Ian McMillan has been carved on to lock gates, has met with some
resistance from “boaters”. “Some see it as an incursion of external values,”
explains the canal laureate.

But it could equally well be argued that the arts have been at the heart of
the canal revival since it launched in the post-war years. Leading lights
back then in the Inland Waterway Association included the writers Robert
Aichman, Elizabeth Jane Howard and LTC Rolt, the Poet Laureate John
Betjeman, and the prima ballerina, Margot Fonteyn. Its inaugural National
Rally of Boats in 1950 in Market Harborough was as much arts festival as
canal event.

Jo Bell is convinced, though, that any choppy water around the new wave of
culture will subside. “Most people who love and adore the canals want to see
them used. They know that they will only survive if that use is by the
widest possible group of people. And so they will embrace the new
transformation that is underway.”

The Floating Cinema will be screening films at the Angel Canal Festival,
Islington, north London, on Sept 7. floatingcinema.info

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(via Telegraph)