We've been sticking pretty close to home lately so I figure it's time for a bit of a change. Head from the US to the UK at least. Fans of the PBS Mystery series were treated to a new Inspector Morse last month. Recovering from a physical breakdown the perpetually cranky detective set out to resurrect the Oxford Canal Murder. In fact the flashback story, with names changed, was based on an actual 1839 case, which really happened on the Trent and Mersey Canal. We don't need to go into the other slight changes made to the real case by author Colin Dexter. Life on British canals, as on our own Erie Canal, could be nasty and violent. There were murders, rapes, riots, thefts and above all drunkenness, especially in the early days, before many captains began bringing their families to live on board. British writer Harry Hanson recreates life on his country's canals in the 1978 book Canal People.

One cause of much trouble was the fact that canal boatmen often had far too much time on their hands, especially on the long stretches between locks when there wasn't much work to be done. One favorite activity was poaching. It was easy for a shotgun-armed member of the crew to hop off the boat, pot a pheasant or two and hop back aboard before the local gamekeeper tumbled to what was going on. Private food gardens were another favorite target. The potential for violence was always present, but not all incidents ended with broken heads and jail sentences. One prankster with an old score to settle with another boatman, hopped off a boat when it locked through and left a loaf of bread sitting on the beam used to swing the lock gates open and shut. He was asked what it meant, and replied it was for the family of his foe, since the man was, "so lazy he can't even make enough to feed his wife and kids." When the slandered man came along and heard the story, he started out in hot pursuit. He met some of his relatives along the way who joined in the low speed chase. When everyone reached the employer's depot they all began wrangling, but soon forgot why, began to get riled up about working conditions and headed for the front office. A visitor to the office walked in a short time later and found the manager pinned to the floor by a threatening mob. The caller took one look, mumbled, "I'll come back when you're not so busy," and hurried back out through the door. This apparently so amused the crowd that soon all was forgiven and all ended well.

Perhaps some of them had seen the admonition included on a poster entitled, "Don't. A Word to Our Boatmen." Some do-gooder had listed eight Don'ts, Among these was, "Don't swear at your horse, your donkey, your wife or child-when you are vexed. At such a time it would be a good thing to pause, and count fifty; a better thing to laugh and be merry; best of all to pray." I'm certain that was what did the trick, aren't you?

For Classical ninety-one five, this is David Minor

Harry Hanson - Canal People (London, David & Charles, 1978, ISBN 0-7153-7559-8)

©1999 David Minor / Eagles Byte