This poem was written in the autumn of 1996 for a themed competition, though I now forget what the theme was. The poem was shortlisted in the 1997 Beehive Press competition, with the result that I got to read it out to a gathering in Merton, South London. The 2006 Bassetlaw Writers competitition commended the poem and published it in the competition anthology.
Canal time's different from other times.
Canal boats happen at another speed
than bikes and cars and trains and planes. The voyage
Leicester to Stratford can be interrupted,
you can drive to Heathrow and fly to Spain,
come back the same or other ways, rejoin
the Stratford trip, and lose none of the wonder
belonging to a boat and journeys south;
and in itself canal time magnifies,
has Nottinghamshire's flattest full of echoes
from more remembered places, has West Stockwith
the Suffolk coast, has rock a Malham Cove
as high as lost, a Mahler's Resurrection,
has the steady climb west out of Worksop
so steep, so locked, it was unnavigable,
the guidebook says, by eighteen-ninety-six --
and resonances there as well: the last
century's end, Wilde locked behind brick walls,
the urban myth, time-capsule of a station
waiting beneath St Pancras. So I saw it,
those gateless weirs, weedy stretches of water,
overgrown towpaths, not so long ago.
But now they're working on the locks again,
putting new gates in, strengthening the banks,
laying fresh towpaths, clearing weeds. St Pancras
plans a deep-level station now for real.
Strange thing, the past: keeps altering; canals
may prompt, like rivers, elegiac thoughts,
but needn't lie down under them. What is it
that has a century an interruption?
Bassetlaw is the district of Nottinghamshire where I grew up and still have kin. The urban legend about St Pancras is one I came across, around 1988, in a Guardian interview with Stephen Poliakoff about his film Hidden city. It contained the sentence (I quote from memory):
While filming at St Pancras Hotel, he was told of another complete station underneath St Pancras, which was bricked up like a time capsule at the end of the last century and now, presumably, awaits the mega-development of the site.
That buried station became an obsession of mine. I wrote to British Rail for information about it. They knew of no urban legend, but could tell of a low-level depot for beer trains from Burton on Trent. I won't pretend I scoured libraries for books of disused stations and underground curios, but I did touch on the matter in a desultory fashion, when visiting friends who collected such books and such stories. And, be it admitted, with people who didn't collect them. They hadn't heard of this one either. It finally drew from me a sequence of poems in the early 1990s, which I called 'The St Pancras resonances'. I may come to blog that in due time.
The 1996 poem is neater. It dates from when the buried St Pancras was beginning to occupy less of my mind.