Simon Wain sent me this only last week. I first met Alf at Harris’s yard, Bumblehole, Netherton. He and brother Jeff had Imp, their first boat, moored there in the mid 60s. At the time I’d helped Malcolm Braine with Cactus and Ken Dunham with Grange at the yard and I was developing an interest in signwriting, having watched Ted Chetwynd letter Cactus and being taught Italic handwriting and later some calligraphy at school. Somehow, Alf learned of this and said, in a broad Black Country accent
” Daeve, yo’ got nice ‘ondwritin....con yo’ paent me boat’s naeme on the side?”
It was a challenge I readily accepted, setting to work with the wrong paint and brushes, taking almost a day to execute the 6 letters for a fee of 40 Park Drive cigarettes. This was the beginning of a long friendship which lasted, on and off, until his death in the mid 90s. Imp was sold and Alf had Hexa built at Norton Canes by Denis Cooper at CTS, she was the boat usually associated with him. As is seen on the film, she was well adorned with decorative ropework, the tiller a riot of plaited ropework using plastic coloured washing line. Around this time, the early 70s, he had a crane driving job in a local factory, though he was making fenders and decorative ropework too. He’d knock a day off work and I’d drive him around West Midland boatyards where he’d sell his wares.
He soon commissioned a workboat to accompany Hexa as a floating workshop where he could ply his trade, having given up factory work, and once again I set to work with enthusiasm, wrong paint and brushes to letter Fiddlers Green for him. I cringed to see the work featured briefly in the interview! We boated together extensively in the early 70s, though I was in Australia in 76 when the piece was filmed. We lost touch for some years during which he married, had a son, and for some time living afloat at the Black Country Museum where he demonstrated his craft as well.
We met again on the fringes of the Black Country at Prestwood near Stourbridge, at the yard of David Baugh, then the home of Black Country Narrowboats. Things hadn’t gone well for Alf, the boats were sold and David had a caravan in which Alf lived, single again. He used outbuildings at the yard to pursue his ropeworking career. Eventually, anno domini intervened and he moved to a care home in Kinver. I passed by often, with a note....next time, I’ll go and see Alf....until a phone call from a friend informed me of his passing. His funeral saw a model of Hexa atop his coffin, which I know would have pleased him.
Alf was a real character, the salt of the Black Country earth and I treasure his memory. My final act was to write an appreciation of his life for the journal of the International Guild of Knot Tyers. Rest in peace, me mon!