A Limitation of Delight

“Louis, by the Grace of God, King of France and Navarre: to all those present and to come, GREETING. Whereas the proposal hath been submitted to us for joining the Ocean and Mediterranean Seas by a transnavigational Canal…”

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FROM THE PRINTED PAGE the voice from the past drones on; solemn, and in the heat of the afternoon with the murmur of insects for accompaniment, soporific. This is no time for study. This is the hour to idle, to drowse, to daydream, to bless the shade, to watch the dragonflies, to wonder if the fisherman on his canvas stool is asleep or any right-minded fish is awake.

 In 1666 they started the colossal work of cutting the Canal du Midi. Fifteen years later they finished it. Now, the grass grows long and the trees grow tall on the bank raised by those 17th century engineers. From across the fields there comes the sound of a tractor, so someone at least is working, but here even to turn the pages is too much trouble. The eyelids droop, the head lolls.

 It is a tranquil existence, this life on the canal. For much of the way between Toulouse and Castelnaudary it is a world of narrow, yet sufficient horizons. In places where the canal banks are not high and are open to the countryside one may look out across the fields to low hills, the spires of village churches rise from distant trees, here and there a castle crowns a ridge; but for miles the banks are above eye level, or are tree-bordered so that only from a vantage point on the boat can one see beyond them. For long stretches woods close in, high branches meeting overhead so that one moves in sylvan tunnels where the light seems green.

That there is little desire to see or travel far from the towpaths or the banks is part of the anatomy of the delight; for by this narrowing of the horizons, this blinkering by embankment and poplar and willow and stately plane trees, the mind and the emotions are turned and tuned to the calm simplicities of this other, secret world of landlocked water. “Canalised” now has a literal though punning significance. The banks, the ducks, the farmyards, the birds, the barges, the flowers; these are the few things to which, hour after sweet, slow-moving hour, the attention is directed and confined. The lock keepers, the bargemen and women, the fishermen, the facteur on his bicycle; these are the few strangers one is even briefly concerned with. Steering the boat, having a care to keep its propeller and filter free of weeds, its grease reservoir charged and its speed and wash to an inoffensive minimum, working it through the locks; these and unsophisticated domestic affairs are the sum of one’s responsibilities. There is time for letting lunch in the shade idle on, the boat secured to a tree but her crew tied to no plan or programme whatever until someone with a little more energy than the others comes to undo the rope and turn the starter key and ease the vessel gently on its easy-going course again.

From time to time one makes brief excursions to the busy world ((to shop, to dine ashore, to post a letter) which, on the canal, has been half forgotten. And it seems better than one remembered, which is probably to say that, taken on one’s own terms, it has become more tolerable. For the boat has become to the traveller what a prepared line of withdrawal is to the military commander: a nice thing to have if the going gets too difficult. So one wanders at ease around the market, taking great pleasure in the selection of fruit and farmyard eggs and fresh vegetables. So one sits at pavement tables, enjoying a drink all the more for the awareness that here and now is part of the total holiday pleasure, not merely a pause on the way to it. Keeping its distance even from most of the villages, making little more than a passing and by no means disagreeable acquaintance with Castelnaudary and Carcassonne, the canal is one-part urban, ninety-nine parts rural; the ancient waterway exerts instead a wholesome philosophy of patient, happy submission to timeless joys and realities: sunrise and sunset, dawn and dark, the heat of high noon, the first, gentle breeze of evening, the scent of hay, the sight of bright yellow iris among the reeds, a bird calling in the night.

Slowly, slowly one moves; three or four miles an hour, perhaps. Slowly, slowly the precious time goes by, but never hanging heavily upon one’s hands, never lost, never squandered mindlessly, never regretted. Keep going and you reach sea, but on the canal, getting there is not half the fun, it is the fun, whole and sufficient unto itself. Shall we breakfast on this side of the next lock or on the other? It does not matter. Shall we picnic under these trees or those, on the boat or off it, before the bridge or after it? The decision is of little consequence. If 7.30 p.m. and the end of the lock keeper’s working day finds us a mile or two from where we had thought we might have been, no frustration or anxiety mars the pleasure of our drink before dinner, for our beds are here, ready made in our cabins. If, instead of bed or bunk, we fancy lying close to the good earth and with the stars instead of sheep for counting, there is space enough ashore. Let those who rise early to fish take care only not to make too much noise with the dinghy. Let those who stay up late be inhibited by nothing but the desirability of not greatly rocking the boat.

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The Canal du Midi is today more than 50 years older than when this piece was written.Would anyone who has travelled on it recently  care to  comment on the experience?

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One Comment on “A Limitation of Delight”

  1. Charles says:

    There is no limitation of delight in reading this poetic account of such an excellent journey. I was with you, absorbing the simple sights and sounds. But there was great excitement, too, at making new discoveries and even taking responsibility on occasions, for important matters like winding up the lock gates. Yes, I was with you. And I am very grateful for those memories.


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