In the first part of her professional life, Jo Bell was an archaeologist driving herself mad covering 30,000 miles a year.

Now she lives on a narrowboat in Staffordshire, thrives on tranquillity and is potty about poetry.

And so, even though her lifestyle is something Jo has treasured now for a decade, the Birmingham Literary Festival is an irresistible big city attraction.

“I won’t be travelling by boat because it would take a week to get here and a week to get back,” she laughs.

“But I can’t wait to see the new Library of Birmingham. And the festival itself has become one of the best.

“Four or five people have been with it for a long time and made it a really well programmed festival.

“As a city, Birmingham has always been about the canals, too.

“Many cities have canal areas that have been regenerated, but very often that means shops, not a canal that’s for boaters – Birmingham remembers that its canals are part of its authenticity.”

Born in Sheffield and raised in the Peak District, Jo’s 67ft narrowboat Tinker will be 22 years old this year.

As a rough guide, a second hand narrowboat will typically cost £1,000 per foot – which is an interesting way of measuring the price of your home.

“They are not as cheap as people think they are,” says Jo.

“Modern boats are uninteresting, but they have much more reliable engines. The older ones are those which make such a beautiful sound that people pop their heads up like meerkats.

“They are also likely to leave you with oil all over the floor.”

Jo’s boat has a permanent mooring; other people prefer to have to move on every two weeks from wherever they are – though this is more difficult for anyone who needs to get to work.

Either way, to live on water means you need to have quite a tough skin.

“You get the prejudice from some people that we are all slackers,” she says. “But, when you go to a proper boating town, officials have special forms printed for you to fill in.

“I started to live on water just when internet technology was making it possible to work from there.”

Does she not get “tunnel vision” from living in a long room all the time?

“That’s a good question, but no,” she says. “I do get a cricked neck, though, from steering.

“But I don’t think I could go back to living in a normal house with stairs... I have a hot shower on the boat, but would like a bath.”

People find the desire to write comes from variously inspiring ways.

“Living by water, on water, is calming and especially when I am trying to write about canals,” she says.

“I can hear the sound of the canal. I can smell it.”

It’s all a far cry from when she was travelling between 19 historic sites on behalf of the National Trust.

“Moving to the narrowboat was an effort to redirect my life and to live it at a slower pace,” she says.

Jo used to be the director of National Poetry Day and is the canal laureate for this year, thanks to the Poetry Society and the Canal & River Trust.

“I do interviews at public events and, through my blogs, I’m working on a one-hour show called Cut which I hope to perform in dry docks next year.

“I teach courses and by the time I get to the Library of Birmingham I’ll have been to France working, too.

“I also do mentoring, teaching online, commissions and my own projects.”

Jo’s passion is largely of her own making – and she is very critical of the way poetry is taught to children and adults alike.

“People have this thing about contemporary poetry,” she says. “But if you went to see a bad film you wouldn’t say all contemporary cinema was bad.

“My dad only read one book per year – the new Wilbur Smith – so I probably picked up more things from my mum’s bookshelves.

“I’ve always read a lot of poetry and the good thing about my first degree in English and History at Newcastle was that it forced me to read a lot of stuff like Chaucer, which is fantastically important for learning about poetry.

“I then did an MA at York in archaeology, reading voraciously with a technical eye, but then took a holiday from it until I was about 30.

“I’m not greatly in favour of children learning to read poetry by heart, I’m not persuaded that it makes kids love poetry.

“Learning and loving are not the same, so there should be less emphasis on the technical side. Poetry should be a pleasure and tool for life, rather than a mechanism.”

* Jo Bell will be at Birmingham Literary Festival on Saturday.

She will be doing three sessions: Water, Water Everywhere: Poetry with Jo Bell, which is a workshop for emerging and established writers, to generate new poems on the theme of water and journeys, 10am-12.30pm. Cost £28/£23. The Kingfisher Corridor: Poetry on the canals with Jo Bell and guests, 2pm-4pm. £8/£6; the third session is And Stuart Maconie & Friends: Jo Bell, Bernadine Evaristo and Paul Heaton, 7.45pm-9pm, £10/£8.

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