Dory fishermen’s lives in the 1920s on film

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Albert Khan

Still of fishermen long-lining from dories in the 1920s, from the Albert Khan archive

Some fabulous documentary film of French fishermen catching cod from on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland is online now via the BBC iPlayer – if you’re lucky enough to have access to it. Click here!

Originally from Alsace, Albert Khan was a rich pacifist, philanthopist and internationalist who sought to promote world peace by using photography as a means of persuading the people in the West of the enormous diversity of human life and culture – so he sent French photographers on trips throughout the World to shoot black and white as well as early colour photos and film.

To say that the material his photographers brought back is hugely impressive would be an understatement. It clearly demonstrates the richness and high degree of civilisation of the lives lived by many in even the remotest areas of the world and should be seen by anyone who doesn’t know enough about people in other parts of the world, just as Khan intended.

But enough of the sermon – this particular programme includes some fabulous footage of the lives and work of dory fishermen fishing from French boats in the era before the trawlers emptied the Grand Banks of cod, as well as excerpts from the telling diary of the photographer who took it.There’s also some nice clips of sailing Breton tuna fishermen in port.

If you can see material on the iPlayer, do catch it before it’s no longer available!

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BBC Rivers series reaches the rivers of the Fens, the Broads, and finally the Stour

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GRJ on the Broads

The latest episode of Griff Rhys Jones’ BBC series Rivers visited the Fens, the Norfolk Broads and the River Stour last night – and delivered him to his own front door, which overlooks the Stour Estuary.

Yet again, the programme was a quaint combination of luscious photography, interesting segments introducing interesting slices of history, some appealing old boats and some daft rubbernecking from GRJ himself.

I can’t possibly hope to describe the film, so you’ll have to see the show yourself if you have access to the BBC iPlayer. But I can tell you that the boats in this case were a curious kind of eel fisherman’s flat-bottomed punt and a very nice typical old fashioned Broads sailing cruiser hired from Hunter’s Yard complete with a handsome and convenient balanced jib.

The rubber-necking including walking through marshes on stilts (GRJ fell over, naturally) and trying to navigate the bridge at Potter Heigham single-handed with a strong following wind (GRJ lost the quant and only just avoided hitting the bridge side-on). Of course, it doesn’t seem likely that he was actually single-handed, as someone else was clearly on the boat to capture the moment under the bridge, and again when a kind woman took the yacht’s stern line. I’m only glad the boat didn’t appear to be damaged.

A more genuinely funny moment was filmed in Roy’s ever growing shopping emporium on the Hoveton side of Wroxham Bridge, when GRJ described the kind of shopping his father considered appropriate for a sailing trip. It involved a huge amount of Spam, beans and breakfast in a tin, had a distinctly post-War feel about it, and seemed to me to be an amusing but fair account of how I remember men of Rhys Jones senior’s’ generation dealing with the problem of eating out of doors. (Chris Partridge of the Rowing for Pleasure weblog has written amusingly on this subject – and very much takes the elder Rhys Jones’s side.)

But perhaps the aspect of this show that will stay with me is that GRJ also mentioned that ex-Poet Laureate and hugely entertaining 60s and 70s TV presenter John Betjeman had written a moving poem about holidaying on the Norfolk Broads and the way his boyhood relationship with his father had changed over time. Well, that resonated strongly with me – the Broads featured in my youth and again in my son’s so I had to seek out the Betjeman piece. I wasn’t disappointed, and as I’ve pasted it below I hope you won’t be – but what I really want to know is what my son will have to say about it. Not that he reads this weblog very often…


How did the devil come? When first attack?
These Norfolk lanes recall lost innocence,
The years fall off and find me walking back
Dragging a stick along the wooden fence
Down this same path, where, forty years ago,
My father strolled behind me, calm and slow.

I used to fill my hand with sorrel seeds
And shower him with them from the tops of stiles,
I used to butt my head into his tweeds
To make him hurry down those languorous miles
Of ash and alder-shaded lanes, till here
Our moorings and the masthead would appear.

Then there was supper lit by lantern light
And in the cabin I could lie secure
And hear against the polished sides at night
The lap lap lapping of the weedy Bure,
Dear whispering and watery Norfolk sound
Which told of all the moonlit reeds around.

How did the devil come? When first attack?
The church is just the same, though now I know
Fowler of Louth restored it. Time, bring back
The rapturous ignorance of long ago,
The peace, before the dreadful daylight starts
Of unkept promises and broken hearts.

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The Wexford cot and film of a gun punt in use

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Heard of a traditional boat type called the Wexford cot? Or seen footage of a gun punt in use? Neither had I until I caught up with Monday’s episode of Coast, a BBC-Open University series about our coasts that has been fascinating many people in this country for several years now.

The cot is a fairly basic double-ended flattie with rounded clinker sides developed for the shallow water of Wexford Harbour. These days they seem to be made with a small transom, presumably to take an outboard, but they’re traditionally rowed by two men with an oar each. I was strongly reminded of the Weston flatner, which is another flat-bottomed and round-sided boat type, and struck by the thought that Wexford and Weston aren’t so very far apart.

The gun punt footage mercifully saves squeamish people like me from having to look at any carnage in detail but it’s interesting to see the boats, which have just 10in of freeboard, being propelled and steered using a quant. More, it’s astonishing to see how little recoil the boats exhibit when the big gun mounted on their foredeck is fired.

The episode includes a nice interview with Larry Duggan, whose family has been building these boats for generations. Over at the Rowing for Pleasure weblog, Chris Partridge has picked up a Flickr photo set put up by Alan Duggan, which is well worth looking at.

If you’re in the UK and have access to the Internet, do try and catch it on the BBC iPlayer before it’s replaced by this coming Monday’s episode.

For a post about gun punts in the East of England including a splendid quotation from Victorian scholar and man of the cloth Sabine Baring-Gould, click here.