In the glory days of newspapers I would often be able to spend half a day, sometimes a whole day, with a journalist interviewing and photographing interesting people with great stories to tell. The subsequent article and my pictures would be spread over a couple of broadsheet pages and would be read by people enjoying a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea on a Sunday morning. I loved meeting those people. It was a privilege to hear what they had to say and allow me to click away with my camera. With a few exceptions, most newspapers have become little more than a printed version of FaceCrack and those features are a distant memory. With that in mind, my very dear friend and former colleague Ellis Butcher decided we would do a little feature for old times sake. We visited ‘The man who lives on a boat’ a couple of times and we loved every minute. The following words are by Ellis Butcher who now writes for a superb local newspaper in Scotland, The Oban Times.
Beached Street: North West England. A far corner of a lonely grey coast. Sand collects in the corners of lifeless windowsills and backyard doors creak on rusted hinges. A place of coal bunkers still in use, and outdoors privies converted into fancy bike sheds. Cut through the ramshackle allotments with its warbling chicken coops. Head past the shredded Union Jack flags ripped apart by winter gales. Find a hidden path through the sand dunes and the spiky Spartina grass. Keep walking and there – somewhere between somewhere and nowhere – amid the rippling rock pools you will find it. A 72ft ‘Mersey Flat’ barge. Stuck in the mud, stranded for 20 years.
The Man Who Lives On a Boat shares this darkened home of oil lamps, stopped clocks, and steamed-up barometers with a couple of soot-stained pussy cats whose birthdays he remembers. His large wolf-like White Alsation has a keen ear for footsteps through the rockpools and as we approach it ruffs a warning WUFF, WUFF. The Man Who Lives On A Boat heaves himself out of his grotty bunk bed. The sound of heavy boots on deck and the rustle of salt-scaled waterproof trousers. The lid of the beached barge pops open and he greets us with a phlegmy cackle: ‘I was just having a kip.’
He is happy here. No cars, no phones, no internet. When the tide’s out, he makes a bee-line for his provisions. Fish n Chips. Pork pies. Quavers crisps and back bacon. Chilled bottles of cheap plonk from the bottom shelf of the corner shop. ‘I keep topping mesell up with this stuff,’ he says, nodding at his drink. ‘It’s a preservative.’ The cats used to get sea sick when the tide came in but have now got their sea-legs. This flat-bottomed cargo barge is sailing nowhere – securely anchored to the mudbank. With him at the helm, it used to chuff up and down the Menai Strait, a 16-mile corridor separating mainland Wales from the Isle of Anglesey. Younger then, taller then, his spine straight. A fat-fisted river man. The ubiquitous bloke at the end-of-the-bar in the dockside boozers. Handy with his hands, quick with his wit and a devil with the women. Hails from ‘Blundellsands, Crosby. Borough of Sefton. North of Bootle, south of Southport.’
Coal from Liverpool, Pig Iron from Furness, Welsh slate and steel. He captained it as far north as Glasgow and as far south as Fishguard, Wales. A clever fella, a maintenance engineer. Faded certificates of past accomplishments line his walls. The odd crinkled photo of sweethearts who abandoned ship long ago. His was a life of fixing things. Making do. Pistons. Cylinder heads. Hand cranking engines. ‘If you look around this boat, I am stuck somewhere around 1950,’ he admits. ‘It’s not deliberate. It’s just what I can get – cheap stuff. I’ve never bought new. It’s got to be second hand.’ He reckons he could build a Sopwith Camel out of plywood. But the tide went out on ‘old farts’ like him, he says. There’s always a cost cutter in the corporate world looking for a saving, an ‘efficiency’ a new way to reinvent the wheel. The Man Who Lives On A Boat strikes me as a complex cuckoo clock in a time of smart watches. The knowledge all in his head, not on Google. ‘That’s it, this is the last one, all gone now. I’m afraid.’
And it’s not clear to us if he means the boat or men like him.
Months later, we head back to the Man Who Lives On A Boat to give him prints of the photographs. He thumbed through them, impatiently. ‘Old git! Old git! Old git! Old git! Have you not got any that make me look f*****g young?’ he demands sarcastically. His eyes linger on one shot. ‘F*****g hell. That’s terrible that. F*****g ancient on that one. Jesus Christ. I look like one of those bodies they used to leave out in the desert for a thousand years and their skin used to go like leather.’