The Salmon Ladder
Published on Monday, 11 November 2013, 12:19pm
We are on a boat on the Aire and Calder Navigation. Autumn is here and it is cold. We – year 3 pupils from an inner city primary school, my colleague Matthew and I, and several teachers – are on a trip. We are exploring future visions of the city, from the perspective of an eight year old. To do this we want to start by looking at some of the ways in which the city has changed over the past few hundred years. The docklands area, with its recent redevelopment, seems an ideal place to begin…
We have spent the last half hour exploring Clarence Dock and looking at maps of the area from the early 20th century – trying to imagine what daily life was like here. What were the jobs that people did? What was it like to live beside the river? Would there have been an enormous Indian restaurant here back then? Were the numerous cannon around the dock a part of the work that happened here?
Now we are safely installed on the Kirkstall Flyboat. The children are excited, eager to set off and see what the river has to offer. We have had the safety briefing, we know where the exits are, and we’ve been told that we can go outside at the bow, but that we must not climb the ladders at either side. We have been told to watch for something surprising as we cruise. So we do. As we go, we record what we see in drawings on a map of the waterway. A dead pigeon, a bicycle, trees, three footballs, bits of litter, graffiti.
Huw is the pilot of the boat and also one of our guides. He is a mine of information, about language and about wildlife. When we reach the weir at Knostrup, he encourages us to watch the water at its base, where the river falls by a depth of 3 metres or so. The boiling yellow froth and spray is mesmerizing but of limited interest, until suddenly we see it, the surprising thing, the leaping black dart of a salmon.
As our eyes become accustomed to the speed of the movement, we can see more and more of these creatures, attempting this leg of the journey back to their spawning grounds. Huw tells us that at the weir further downstream, there is a salmon ladder, provided to facilitate this uphill task – but not here. The Canal and River Trust has not seen fit to build one at this point and the chance of many of the salmon making their destination is therefore slim. What’s the logic of this? To provide a ladder at one point as if to offer the promise of success, but nearer to the goal to leave the fish without that vital facility?
The word for ‘School’ in Welsh is ‘Ysgol’ It also means ‘Ladder’ and is related to the French word for ladder: ‘Escalier’. Huw and I mull over this, rolling the two words around our mouths, ysgol, escalier, as we continue to watch the salmon attempt to defeat the weir.
A few days later, we are working with the class again – this time at the children’s school. We are making a map in order to show what they imagine and hope for Leeds and their lives in the future. We talk about the places which are most important to them in their locale and in the city overall. Some initial responses have the Trinity Centre as the apotheosis; others have Tesco at Seacroft as a strong contender. As we talk, however, the frame widens to include the local church, where the children sing carols at Christmas, the Discovery Museum where we took the class to visit, Temple Newsam, the city farm.
We draw pictures of how the city might look in thirty years’ time – we talk about the kinds of work people will do in the city – what will be needed to make it work – and where the children will be in the picture. The drawings include spaces where people make music in the park; a farm to grow food in the South of the city and stables for the horses we will all ride through the streets, in an effort to combat global warming. One girl has drawn the river and on it, a ladder for the salmon.
As she works, we talk. She tells me that she wants to be an artist – someone who has a job talking to other people – like me. How do you get to do a job like that?
It is a question that I have to think about. Formal education to tertiary level, funded by the state, with training in specific skills as the opportunity arose has enabled me to supply a realistic and practical answer to the question I asked myself at school, and which became not so much ‘What job do I want?’ but ‘How do I want to live?’. I’ve been able to do what I want – within certain boundaries. The education I received empowered me to become an artist – to make a kind of living from doing that. The funding we have received for this project has given us the opportunity to make this work – to have this conversation and to open up the dialogue that we are currently having.
Ysgol, escalier. Schools and ladders. When I grew up in Leeds in the seventies, I was able to make certain choices. Opportunities were available to me to climb the appropriate ladders. To arrive at the places that I wanted to get to. I have studied and worked in many other parts of the UK with people whose work I both like and admire. I have lived and worked abroad. But in the end I have returned home – back to the city where I grew up. My colleague Matthew has done the same. We have returned to our ancestral spawning grounds – hopefully wiser and better people than we were when we started. But many of the opportunities which we took advantage of are now no longer there – or else have been drastically reduced. Perhaps this is a good thing. Or perhaps not.
As we chat to the class, I cannot help wondering if any of the children will take a similar route to the one that Matthew and I have taken and how many of them will have the opportunity to make the journey in the first place.