The narrow boat last week came together with a very convivial host who a couple of years ago realised he needed something other than work to keep his life moving, now commuting from wherever he’s moored to work in Manchester. Perhaps by placing himself in the landscape on these urban canals his outlook is better placed for the problematic social issues he deals with in an organisation training ex foster children to counsel and consult to younger ones.
Groups of people idling on the canal are drawn to the opening of a lock which presents a mechanism to gather round. Winding the paddle, water flowing and levelling, the process has a compelling mechanical clarity, as if watching the process makes life under the force of gravity momentarily that bit clearer.
The forces at work in the English urban environment aren’t often as clear as water finding its level. The port of Birkenhead and the Port Sunlight factory village made on soap (Pears and Sunlight soap among others), are within a few miles of each other but present the forces of industry in very different perspectives. We visited them on Sunday afternoon.
Birkenhead is a port overlooking Liverpool. It’s topography has been ruptured by the Mersey tunnel entrance in a way similar to other industrial towns beheaded by roads, it’s enormous extracting tower presents a sheer and somewhat ominous landmark on the waterline.
The port with ferries crossing to Liverpool is a hazy stretch of water fronted on the other side by pavilions in styles that combine waterside theme park with world trade centre architecture from a variety of eras.
They make those on this port side seem even more utilitarian if that were possible. An isolated head of decaying industrial function, flat land almost without landmarks in a scale of distances that makes land and water bleakly equivalent especially on a Sunday afternoon.
Port Sunlight was built as the remedy for single minded capital industry in the late 19th century by William Lever as a model factory town. Consistent with the company’s aim of making soap/reliable hygiene available to everyone, the town itself was designed with running water, sewerage and housing designed with community in mind.
Lever said that a worker should be thought of as more than just a pair of hands; the elements of urban living should enable life and work and generate energy for creative recreation.
He collected sculpture and painting which was made available to the public. The collection now housed in the Lady Lever art gallery has a major group of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, a movement dedicated to themes of a pre-industrial cottage industry.
The movement promoted a moral tone that was suited to and probably sprang from the 19th century reformed churches which had pared back the ritual in order to trade a living moral code with a utopian vision, an English version of modernity that was less ironic but equally recoiling from the industrial world as its French Post-Impressionist contemporary.