18 APRIL 1952, Page 10


Portrait of a Lock-keeper

By N. B. W. WIDLAKE (Clare College, Cambridge.) H E had been tramping along the tow-path when he saw that the lock-cottage was vacant. Lock-keeper , wanted. In three hours he had got the job, put on his blue double-breasted brass-buttoned jacket, got a cap from somewhere and taken possession. That had not been difficult, since everything O'Brien and his woman possessed—she was Mrs. O'Brien to anyone who wanted to know—was in two bundles. There were some sticks of furniture left by previous inhabitants in the small three-roomed cottage, and O'Brien will tell you that appearances don't matter when you have been a tramp for ten years.

That was the start of a five-year tenancy for O'Brien. At the end of that time he left and went North just as suddenly as he had taken the job; but during those five years he became a local legend in his quiet way. Lock-keepers tend to be a race apart: the solitude of their existence on more isolated waterways, the occasional barge or vessel sometimes coming through, the lack of near-by human habitations, all help to make them lonely, independent, rather philosophic creatures. Their work is irregular. Very often there is nothing to do for several weeks, and there is little outlet for adventurous spirits. Remote from the hustle of life, they regard the world through placid, disbelieving eyes, and say with Swift, " 'Tis all folly."

O'Brien was no exception to the rule, but he made an exceptional lock-keeper. The heritage of a tramp—freedom, leisure, contempt for authority and society—ran strongly through his veins, and so did the faults. Lazy, disrespectful and unkempt, he condemned and praised humanity in a deep rumbling voice, always prepared to back his opinions with his fists. Above them floated a buoyant sense of humour, a fanciful mind, generosity towards the right people and a deep reserve.

I met him at the end of his first year. It was an awkward meeting. He stood outside his front door, legs firmly apart, arms folded, eyeing me with hostility as I approached down the road. I have seen bigger men—he was six feet tall— but few so well made. Powerful shoulders, large hairy hands, a stolid firmness which betokened strength and weight. He was unshaven, a strong silver stubble bristling over a weather- beaten face—not blue- and red-veined but the colour of yellow leather with barely a line to blemish the skin, which wasn't bad,for a man of sixty-two.

"Nice place you've got," I said.

He looked at me with suspicion, guessed that I was young enough to be sincere, and replied : "Not bad, is it ? " He told me with pride that he was more or less self-sufficient. He showed me his garden of vegetables, the cantankerous white goat, the water-wheel which supplied his electricity and the ducks and hens which ran free.

"No pigs ? " I asked.

"They stink," he answered with straightforward authority.

After that I often talked to him. His salary was two pounds a week, but the O'Briens had refurnished the cottage and added a broad white-eyed bull-terrier to the family. That meant a larger income, and his wife, who knew O'Brien's laziness well enough, contributed her share. Somewhere she had learned to type; so the solution lay on the living-room table—a large old fashioned typewriter, and pinned to the wall above it a Pitman's diagram. The machine was erratic; barely one word in ten was ever on the right axis, and each letter seemed to have a different level on the paper. I gave her a letter to type for me, and she made a bad job of it. The " Sir " plunged off at forty-five degrees from the "Dear," and she had altered "Yours faithfully" to "Faithfully yours." This was another tribute to the O'Brien independence. The customer was, to all intents and purposes, always wrong. I did not complain. She was proud of her work, and O'Brien would have probably kicked me down the road for insulting his wife.

Many couples would have given much to be in O'Brien's position. The work was negligible—one barge a week with other small duties which never bothered him. There was a cottage; and it was possible to live on very little. Not so O'Brien. He believed in the liberty of the individual to do what he wanted when he wanted, and regarded leisure as the most important factor in life. His own master for many years, he had rid himself of authority in his youth. He knew the burdens and duties of a citizen, and both were distasteful. Leisure and freedom were two commodities which he had always possessed, without having to work for years and care- fully organise his routine so that they could be snatched in snippets here and there. Consequently the smallest encroach- ment on his freedom made him disgruntled. If two barges came through instead of one, it was a bad week. He was being overworked; he did not understand why he had taken the job; he would go onto the road again; he would not be tied down, and so on.

As if to show his devotion to the life of leisure, he had made " improvements " which were not in his line of duty. Running from the lock to the cottage there was a wire which was attached to a bell. If the water in the river rose to flood-level, the bell rang to warn the keeper. It frequently rang in the early hours. of the morning; so O'Brien cut the wire for the sake of his sleep. The Conservancy Board had also given him a telephone. His neighbours, not blessed with one, often received messages through O'Brien. He had realised early on that he could not spend his time going from neighbour to neighbour giving them messages. He compromised. For each of his neighbours he had a different coloured disc. When a message came through, the appropriate disc was hung on a nail outside O'Brien's door. In this way when his neighbours passed they could tell for whom there was a message.

There had been other, more vexing, troubles. There had been difficulties with the Home Guard during the war. In one dispute the Home Guard commander had been hurled bodily into the lock. There had been arguments with the Conservancy Board and fracas with holiday-makers—all ruffles on the water of O'Brien's leisure and peace of mind. He had smoothed each one out with firmness and authority, using words preferably, but where these failed muscle.

He surprised me one day by pointing to a small green caravan standing in the middle of his cabbage-patch. It was here, he explained to me, that he wrote. Soldier, sailor, rail- road-ganger, charlatan and tramp in his younger days, now a lock-keeper and writer. He specialised in children's stories and verse. He had material, he told me confidentially, for some forty novels, but had no desire to spoil it by putting it on paper. Milton, he said blandly, was not a bad poet, but after Shakespeare and Milton there had never been much in the way of poets. He complained that contemporary writing was humourless: "The maturer_you get the less serious you should become, and so it should be in writing." All young men were earnest and serious and older people apathetic and miserable—" and bloody fools," he observed.

O'Brien's opinions on life and literature came from a select stock which he had saved over the space of many years. Wise enough not to give an opinion too often, he was too ignorant to be clever. He had that rare facility for making himself com- fortable in a ditch; he never noticed the weather; he could look after himself in a fight; he was intelligent enough not to be a fool; he was a misanthrope, a humorist and a firm believer in fairies. "What more could you want ? "he asked modestly. What indeed ?