Rio has its world-famous carnival, Hong Kong takes to the waters each summer to celebrate the rich cultural tradition of dragon-boat racing – and London? As of last weekend, London has Canalival. What they’ve done there is combine the words “canal” and “carnival” – Canalival. Say it again: “Canalival”. No, it’s still not working is it.
What Canalival was on Saturday was a lot of people taking to east London’s Regent’s Canal in any river-going craft to hand. There were rubber rings, lilos, shopping trollies and perhaps even the odd boat, bringing the communal atmosphere of a street party to the capital’s often-neglected, normally pretty filthy canals.
But the fun didn’t last. Canalside residents and the London media have complained that the party – unendorsed by city authorities – left behind a trail of destruction and pollution, and possibly a brand new London landmark made purely from deflated dinghies. It was a great idea. But some of the photos didn’t look too pretty.
But it raises the question again of what London can do with its network of waterways. They once carried the heavy bulk of 19th-century industry through the city. These days, the best use we can muster for them is as picturesque eye candy for new apartment blocks selling waterside living. But there’s no actual life on the water.
Visit a city like Zürich and there’s no confusion as to what the water is for. They keep it clean, they show it off and they dive right in. The city’s Badi swimming areas, found along the Limmat river feeding into Lake Zürich, are one of its major attractions. And you can’t help but wonder if, perhaps, on the one or two sunny days a year in London, we might enjoy a similar privilege.
There are other uses touted for London’s canals. Inspired by New York’s High Line park, a competition last year to repurpose industrial spaces saw a fantastical idea bob to the surface: to turn the Regent’s Canal into commuter swim lanes. It got strangely large amounts of credible coverage in the news. Yes, just put your computer and clean shirt in a plastic bag around your waste and embark on the several-mile, freezing cold swim to work – ideal. But the notion has now found a real-world outlet in Osaka, where they recently announced that a small section of the Dōtonbori canal will become an 800m swimming lane – the largest outdoor public pool in the world.
As strangely named, poorly planned and divisive as it may have been, I actually wish I’d been there to see the Canalival. It’s interesting to see residents claiming back public spaces when city authorities are too slow on the uptake themselves. And as Notting Hill and the occasional royal wedding (or any excuse for a three-day weekend in the sun) proves, London actually does some of the best carnivals and street parties in the world.
If we could maybe adopt a bit of Swiss-style respect for surroundings and the forward-thinking ingenuity of the Japanese, perhaps then London could finally just go with the flow.
Tom Hall is a sub editor at Monocle and a Monocle 24 contributor.