Archives online: Even coracles get the blues (1948-72)

Beating against the current in the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.

Thirza Wakefield
Updated:

Web exclusive

ATV Today: 31.10.1972: Coracle Making, via macearchive.org

Fussler. Big Neddy. Little Neddy. Pottery George. Hellfire Jack. Dick Fakenham. Gunnar Bodin. Tommy Rogers.

With names like these they could be bootleggers or perhaps the Peaky Blinders, the raffish gang who ruled with an iron rod (and razor blades) the streets of post-WWI Birmingham, and basis of the popular BBC One drama Peaky Blinders.

In fact these men were poachers, nine of around 15 living along the banks of the River Severn at Ironbridge in Shropshire. The tourist board calls Ironbridge the birthplace of the first Industrial Revolution, which suggests there were jobs to be had there in the second half of the nineteenth century; just none that these boys wanted. As the son of poacher Tommy Rogers puts it, putting the matter pithily to bed: “My father always told me: work makes a man tired and makes his arm sore. So.”

The first clip of a pair from this month’s online archive – the Media Archive for Central England, a wealth of regional reportage, interview and documentary footage – was originally broadcast on ATV Today in 1972. It opens on a busy junction in the centre of 1970s Birmingham, which had been the manufacturing capital of the Midlands during the Victorian era when – 40 miles northwest of the city – Tommy was loping over private property to put a meal on table.

This silent, ten-second prologue shows a woman stopped along a pavement, hemmed between a heave of pedestrians and the surge of oncoming cars. Cut away – and the next time we see her she’s raised the flat of her hand to her face: she’s reaching the end of her rope. A vehicle passes in front of her and with a well-sewn cut we’re someplace else. We’ve swapped the bustle of ‘modern’ life that’s apt to make one frantic for a bucolic scene – or rather, first, for what looks like the egg-wash polish of a hot-cross bun.

What it is is a coracle, a small boat shaped like a saucer. It’s masking Eustace Rogers, faceless for a further 30 seconds as he lifts the dripping hull out of the water and, balancing it on his head, plods the well-trod path to his hut. As he heaps uphill, a small white house like a saltcellar comes visible on the dark slope opposite, and a bridge: the namesake Iron Bridge, erected in 1779, the first in the world of its kind.

As Eustace leans the coracle against the workshop wall, we cut to a close-up of the inside of the doorframe. This entryway is empty for no more than a second before Eustace passes under it, but while it lasts, it’s a handsome shot: a frame within a frame. The dark doorjamb, in focus, ties with the truss in the top-right corner, and in between the yellow haze, out of focus, out of doors. There’s something natal – natural and warm – in this naïve composition; in this workshop of his father’s. The grass and the wood grain: yellow and blue.

The camera pulls out, carrying us into the cabin, as Eustace closes the door behind him – and vanishes into the bitumen-black of the room. Lighting behind and right of the camera warms a coracle with green rim and books piled up on the seat. It is the kind of dark interior Caravaggio painted as backcloth for biblical tableaux – as in The Beheading of John the Baptist.

This could well be Caravaggio’s tenebrist Baroque, evacuated of its saints and angels, until wider panning reveals an anachronistic second man, the synthetic shine of whose pinstripe suit might be a light source all its own. His occurrence is quite startling, his body language peculiar: he’d look like an interloper if his hands weren’t in his pockets. He’s a reporter from the future, Peter Green from ATV. And, Eustace rematerialising, the pair make a strange brunaille. Now whose world are we in, we may ask: the pastoral or the professional?

We get a good look at Eustace at last – shy of the lens though he seems. He is narrow-shouldered, his face is tan and thin. He looks weathered. (He is 58.) He wears a wool jacket and a plaid shirt, open at the collar. He doesn’t doff his cap in greeting to the furtive interviewer, who never turns to face us. But Green is friend not foe, as his deferential opener makes obvious. Eustace is local royalty, which explains why Green would sooner keep his back to camera than turn it on his subject.

Eustace, for his part, speaks with a melodious West Midlands accent – not, we’ll hear, as broad as his grandfather Tommy’s, whom Eustace mimics in anecdote. His storytelling comes natural – no bells and whistles, but whistling sibilants – sounding sometimes desultory, always affirming: “Ay. Oh, ay.”

Look Around: 30.12.1960: The River Severn, via macearchive.org

Eustace is the youngest generation of a coracle-making family that stretches back over 300 years to his knowledge. He makes the bowl-shaped boat as was taught to him by his elders: a crisscross of laths, covered in cowhide, and waterproofed with pitch. With its single paddle, the coracle is famously hard to pilot. It’s a rare skill and few have it; fewer still know how to make one.

At the time of recording, Eustace is making sales of museum pieces to tourist centres: collectors’ items for glass cabinets; coracles not for floating but to be pinioned perpendicular like a lepidopterist’s catch. Eustace lived to see his own obsolescence, a strange thing for a man. To be building a monument – coracles, dispatched, like so many headstones – to a disappearing craft: this was Eustace’s living.

In a second, related clip – here, or embedded above – Eustace’s father Harry talks of his inseparableness from the Severn. Addressing the camera from his coracle-seat, he steadies the vessel with an oar on the bank, and one notices how fast moves the river behind his head. Eustace looks much like his father; the two are almost interchangeable. And across all the available videos of Eustace and Harry – there is a third at British Pathé (also below) – the Rogers men are unchanging, the coracle unchanging, as time moves on apace: 1948, 1960, 1972.

The Rogers are symbol of a great proportion of the video content of MACE, which holds reams of footage of unionised workers protesting the dwindling of UK industries and the preferment of foreign imports over national resources, and picketing for better pay, better conditions, better hours. What befalls Eustace Rogers’ fairly parochial vocation is a microcosmic example of the dispersal of working-class communities that had amassed around an industry – coal mining, steel and iron foundries, hosiery and knitwear factories – which was then to be outsourced and shut off.

Is it such extinction, or only death, of which Eustace is thinking in that brief, sighing pause after recounting his grandfather’s passing, with the birthright coracle – emblem of himself – in his clasp? Eustace died in 2003, 30 years after this footage was taken. He had no family of his own, and was the last in the Rogers’ line. So when he stares into the hollow, does he think, “I’ll not go out that way”; that he’ll not say to any issue of his, “The world is yours; mind what you do with it”? Gripping the gunwale and leaning his weight heavier than before on the coracle, does he think instead how he and she will go spinning out together? There’s love in that hold, isn’t there? So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Whatever it is that occupies his thoughts, its evidence is what’s interesting. His observable thinking is reminder of the fluency, the voluble, animate nature of archive, that is easily forgotten. This is especially so with digital archive, which can seem as a cemented moment in time, diamond-hard. Digital archive has the quality of a bulk material – more mineral than animal. Watching archive film that is fed through a projector, we may be more mindful of the perishable stock, which moulders without proper keeping, and in turn may be more sensible to the cursiveness of the captured moment as lived. Digitising film divorces a viewer from the amorphous things that make it up: lives, people, thinking, time.

In this case, we could say of the exchange between Eustace Rogers and Peter Green that it went off this way and only this way, and is locked-in. But there was a while – as the reel spooled through the camera, marking time – when their conversation might have played in infinite other ways. It was a living, incipient moment – the now flowing off into the unseen future, not consummate, unfinished. When the action of thinking is exposed as here, it becomes very suddenly clear that – in this case – Eustace is neither fossil nor figment, but flesh-and-blood and a man of feeling. To see him thinking – and never to know unequivocally what it is he thinks – hands us into the tissue of his time.

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