I’m Artist in Residence at the National Waterways Museum, working on a project funded by a Leverhulme Trust grant. The project will culminate in a performance in February 2016. I’m at the museum two days a week, mainly down in the archives rummaging for bits of information that I can use and translate for new and existing audiences – to get them to look at the waterways, and the museum, in a different way.
There’s a general feeling that archives are boring, dusty places, but I love them. I especially the boring stuff – the stats, the toll records – because I love finding the stories within. I love the mystery of opening a box and finding anything from a script from a film about the waterways to a 14-year old boy’s boat-spotting diary from the 1960s. There are some incredible snapshots of canal history within these archives.
I’m a writer and performer. My shows are all about storytelling and talking directly to the audience, with an element of standup. One of my first shows was Me, Myself and Miss Gibbs, which I took to Edinburgh Festival in 2011 and I’m still touring it today. It’s about the story of a postcard sent to a woman called Miss Gibbs in 1910. It involved a lot of archive research, and one chap who came to watch the show was a senior archivist at the NWM. He was really interested in the idea of translating archives for theatre, which is why he wanted me for this role. I also think he liked the fact that I didn’t know much about canals.
When I first took on this role I was overwhelmed by the wealth of history of our canals. I was unsure how to attempt to translate it all in a way that made sense, for people, like me, who don’t know that much about them. So I’ve decided to focus in on the Shropshire Union Canal because I think it’s one of the most interesting ones. It runs from Wolverhampton to Ellesmere Port and I’m attempting to walk its entire length in September. I’ll meet and talk to people along way, eking out the canal’s history and stories, which will culminate in my performance in 2016, at the museum. The idea is to tell the story of the canal, from its construction to its slow decline and finally, its regeneration.
What I’ve found most surprising so far is the passion people have for the waterways, and how much they treasure and want to look after them. We wouldn’t be able to enjoy the canals as we do now if it wasn’t for these people coming together and making it happen.
I’m most proud of the fact that I make a living from something I love to do. I’ve cut my own niche, which is contemporary yet centred around history; encouraging people to think about their own stories and what they might leave behind for others to find in 100 years’ time. I’m never going to make a lot of money doing what I do, but I’m ok with that.
What would I call my narrowboat if I had one? Miss Gibbs, after my postcard show.
What’s on my bedside table? A pile of books, including Moby Dick, a glass of water and my notebook and pen.
I have never… fallen in a canal. Yet.
TOM MIDDLETON / SHROPSHIRE MEDIA