My summer as a ferryman
Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds by the Beatles “Picture yourself in a boat on a river / With tangerine trees and marmalade skies / Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly / A girl with kaleidoscope eyes”
In 1967, before health and safety and risk assessments, I worked my summer vacation as a ferryman on the Manchester ship canal. My job was to stand at the stern of a 20ft open rowing boat and scull passengers, gondolier-style, on the five-minute crossing between Flixton and Irlam, which sat on opposite sides of the canal. There were no lifejackets, no communications or backup engine and I loved it. For an 18-year-old student, it was a dream job – fresh air, independence, exercise and good banter with the passengers.
That summer, I was delegated to do the night shift. After about 11pm, when the pubs had closed, there were few people needing to cross the canal and I spent most of the night in the ferryman’s shanty on the Irlam side, reading, or listening to the Beatles on a cassette player. I was a founder member of the Beatles’ fan club, a devout fan. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band had recently been released and proved a seminal moment in my relationship with their music. I was pretty much obsessed.
One balmy evening when all was quiet, a good friend and fellow Beatles maniac turned up at the shanty with six bottles of Newcastle Brown Ale and some “recreational” cigarettes. There was no traffic on the canal at night, so we slipped the ferry boat off its moorings and drifted out into the starlight. We lay back to the sound of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, got merry on the beer and pot, and voiced profound thoughts, which in the cold light of day were probably rubbish.
Hours later, we were flaked out in the cabin when I was disturbed by a frantic clanging sound. A passenger on the opposite side of the canal was anxious to get to work and was venting his frustration on the call bell. I then realised that my buddy had woken early, taken my boat over to the other
side of the canal and disappeared home. I quickly got on my bike to cycle the quarter of a mile downstream to Irlam locks where I crept under the lockmaster’s window (he was my boss), across the lock gates and back up the other side to rescue my boat.
The LSD song always transports me back to that night on the canal – to blossoming adulthood without the responsibilities, the starry night and the verbal abuse I received from a passenger late for work. Some years later, I heard that the lockmaster knew exactly what had happened, and had taken great delight in my panic and subterfuge. Anthony Morgan
The Beatles at the launch of Sgt Pepper