Monday, 21 October 2013

Thinking Out Of The Box (8)

Thinking out of the box (also thinking out side of the box, thinking beyond the box or thinking the unthinkable) is a metaphor that means to think differently, unconventionally, or from a new perspective. The cliché, has become widely used and refers to novel or creative thinking. Thinking out of the box, is forcing yourself to give considerations to options that you might discount in the first place. To think outside the box is to look farther and to try not thinking of the obvious things, but to try thinking beyond them.

I love history, ever since we started hire boating. I have read as much as possible about the history and the life and times of those working on the inland waterways. There are many books, some good some bad written about the canals. Some of the best have been written by the 'Idle Women' a title bestowed upon the women who joined the Inland Waterways during the last war.

The waterways were used extensively during the last war. But once the war war over the usefulness of the canals was forgotten once again. "Is it the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning" is a play upon the wartime quote of arguably the greatest statesman this country ever had. Winston Churchill was the right man, in the right place, at the right time. Affectionately known during the wartime  as 'winnie' he was a larger than life figure who could motivate and inspire with words and deeds. His talent was to surround himself with people, we would call today 'movers and shakers'. He was also a man of vision. There are many volumes written by and about this charismatic man of his times.

There were others who could also lay claim to being 'the right man, in the right place, at the right time.' One such individual was Robert Aickman. He was certainly a man of great vision, Aickman is sometimes described as the father of the 'Inland Waterways Association.' Aickman was in his own way, fighting a war to preserve the inland waterways that we enjoy today. Aickman's plan was quite simple, it can be encapsulated as "If the waterways had to remain open for the passage of boats. Then the waterway would remain there in perpetuity for boating and every other kind of waterways activity."

Many canals were threatened with closure which enthusiasts opposed whenever they could and conflict with officialdom was inevitable. One way to attract the people to the canals was through organised festivals. The IWA's flagship event was the 'National Waterways Festival'. The membership past and present of the Inland Waterways Association owes a great debt to Robert Aickman. Albeit not on the same scale as the public owed to Churchill. There are never the less volumes written by and about this enigmatic and visionary man of his times.

Now with the passing of the IWA's flagship event the 'National Waterways Festival'. I can't help but wonder if the passing is also marking the end of an era. Looking back over recent years there has been a steady decline in membership and quality of leadership. In a way the decline is mirroring the fall into disrepair of the waterways during and after the war. An act that would have relit the fire in the belly of Aickman and his compatriots.

Bringing the issues back to today. The parlous state of our waterways continues now with the deliberate underfunding of maintenance. The national treasure that are the Inland Waterways are once more slowly and inexorably being ushered towards the abyss. Where is Aickman's  association at a time when its needed more than ever. It would appear that the IWA's once fierce and hard won independence has been bought for a few places on council. The document of surrender and  capitulation signed with the 'memorandum of understanding'. A piece of paper that's as worthless as that of Churchill's predecessor Chamberlain.

What price now for Aickman's simple but visionary plan. If the waterways had to remain open for the passage of boats. Then the waterway would remain there in perpetuity for boating and every other kind of waterways activity.

Over the last few years, new waterways groups have either broken away or evolved. There to represent and protect what might on first sight, be considered as minority interests. Don't be fooled into thinking that small groups have no teeth. Times have changed and one single association cannot represent everything. However, I can see the day when there will be 'an association' for waterways groups. Where support and succour can be shared in a common interest. One where the waterways have to remain open for the passage of boats. That the waterway will remain there in perpetuity for boating and every other kind of waterways activity.

Parts of the Inland Waterways are now managed as a charity. There has been a huge change in how it it is funded. This change will dictate the way that it will have to operate in the future. Once under the remit of British Waterways as a quango it could ignore opinion and plough its own furrow. Now, it has to operate under very close scrutiny. This is very much the same as Aickman's plan of positive action. 

When the last of the dinosaurs of ex BW senior management have gone. When the era of a silo mentality and 'us and them' comes to an end. When secrecy surrounding issues finally comes to an end.  When accountability is acknowledged. When fresh ideas and practices are embraced and encouraged. When the hearts and minds of all waterways users are won over to a common challenge and shared future. Then the future of the Inland Waterways will prosper.

I pay quite happily around £50 a year supporting a number of small waterways groups who I think will help to make a difference. I don't want to be given the belittling title of 'friend'.  The first step towards a shared future is when the Canal and River Trust embraces a paid membership. When I and others like me see openness and transparency as the norm.

Ask yourself a few simple questions. Will the names of Robin Evans or Tony Hales ever be revered or held in the same public perception as Robert Aickman. Would the title 'visionary' apply to any of the ex BW directors. You could ask the very same questions of recent holders of the chairman's role at the IWA.

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