Sole Survivor

Sole Survivor

Words Richard Benson

Photographs Laurence Ellis

Jeremy Atkinson is the last traditional clog-maker in England. He’s quite aware that, in a world of ‘everything 2D and fake’, he represents more than simply a maker of slightly anachronistic footwear. ‘I’m the keeper of the craft,’ he says…

‘I make quite a lot of clogs for computer programmers,’ says Jeremy Atkinson, standing amid shelf-fuls of wooden lasts, fearsome black iron knives and fresh, raw-smelling sycamore shavings in his Herefordshire workshop. ‘I remember when I first noticed them, a few years ago. I said to one, “I know why you’re interested. It’s because you sit in front of a screen all day, don’t you – everything 2D and fake. And you’re attracted to the idea of having something made for you by someone who’s real.” He agreed. But nowadays there are quite a few people who feel wistful like that when they think of being sat in front of a screen all day. And I suppose my clogs are a counterbalance to their day-to-day culture. Which is good!’

Atkinson, 62, is England’s last traditional, bespoke clogger, and what these days might be called an iconic figure. Knowledgeable, dedicated and pertinacious, but self-deprecating, he manages to be quite unromantic about British crafts, while clearly aware that what he does has a significance beyond the footwear itself. He knows that he upholds a tradition that has a more important role in British popular culture than many people realise, and that in doing so, he is making a kind of stand against the mass production that devalues the objects it produces. In recent years, the world has been coming round to him.

 

He has supplemented clogging with other jobs, such as land surveying, in the past (‘If the work comes in I do it, if not, I don’t’) but at present demand for his clogs – and his public demonstrations at fairs – takes up most of his time. He is the leading individual authority on the subject, counts the National Theatre and various film studios among his clients, and has more or less attained first-nameonly status in craft circles. Despite his uneasiness about marketing himself (‘Here is a bunch of YouTube videos of me wittering on and carving,’ runs the introduction to the videos on his website, ‘You may get through one or two of them before you lose the will to live’) you find that if you say ‘Jeremy’, there’s a good chance people will know who you mean. Add ‘the clog man’ and it’s a certainty.

 

‘Clog-dancing was a street and music-hall entertainment similar in its mass take-up to breakdancing’

 

The most important element of Atkinson’s method is his insistence on hand-carving the soles rather than using machined ones. There are plenty of other producers – clogs are more popular than you might expect, and workers in industries such as glass and steel-making go through thousands of pairs every year – but virtually all use machine-cut soles. Because machine-cut versions have the same thickness all through, it is likely that the balance point – the bit of the sole that pivots or rolls as you walk – ends up in the wrong place, and the clog doesn’t tip forward until the wearer is part way through a stride. Atkinson cuts the soles so the balance point is in the right place, just behind the ball of the foot. ‘Basically,’ he says, ‘machine-made soles are OK for clog-dancing and standing still, but not for walking around. It’s inevitable because of the compromises you make with machines.’

British clogs, unlike all-wooden European styles, have always been a combination of wood and leather. Their evolution is the subject of some dispute, largely because, as Atkinson says, when they were worn out they tended to be tossed onto household fi res; such old models as are known about have been either dug up, or found in the roofs and walls of old buildings, where they were placed as charms to ward off malevolent spirits and bad luck. Clog scholars believe they originated either as leather upper, wooden-sole shoes introduced by the Romans or, later on, as pattens – wooden blocks held in place by thongs to raise feet above the mud of public pathways – and were still being worn in some areas into the 1920s.

 

 

Of course they achieved mass adoption during the industrial revolution, when laced and clasped versions fulfilled the workers’ need for cheap, strong and protective footwear. They have come to be associated with the industrial north, though this is in some ways misleading, because they were worn everywhere; their popularity generating entire subcultures in much the same way that trainers have done in our era. Clog-dancing, for example, was a street and music-hall entertainment similar in its mass take-up to breakdancing, one that gave Charlie Chaplin his break after he started out in the clog-dancing troupe, the Seven Lancashire Lads. Clog-fighting, or ‘purring’, a forerunner of Eastern martial arts carried out by men almost  naked but their footwear, was a hit with gamblers. And the various different styles were celebrated in songs like Lancashire’s ‘The Clog Maker’:

A can see’im now a shapin’ some very pointed soles,
‘e sez ther for a clog-dancer, ‘who puts on special shows.
An’then ther’s bread and butter clogs, which Jim meks by the score,
An’when ther blacked and polished up,
ther ready for the store.

 

Eat your hearts out, Run DMC.

Their gradual usurpation by the hobnail boot began in the mid-19th century, but clogs lasted longer in some places than others. It appears that they remained in favour longer in areas with thinner, peaty soils, because heavy wet clay stuck to them – this being the origin of the phrase ‘clogging up’. This is probably the reason, says Atkinson, that they stuck around longer up north and became linked to the region in the public imagination. In some northern counties they were still common in the 1930s, with some people wearing them unselfconsciously into the 1960s. Sometimes when Atkinson is asked to estimate the manufacture date of old clogs, he can say only ‘between, say, 1880 and 1960’, because some basic designs and materials didn’t change.

There have also been periodic mini-revivals among the style conscious since then. Those who remember the early 1980s, for example, may recall the post-punk subculture that coalesced around Bradford’s 1 in 12 Club taking them up in what seemed to be a vague, unverbalised expression of allegiance to craftsmen and the old working class. The Bradford band New Model Army and some of their fans still wear them now.

 

 

A similar sense of allegiance to people and values outside the modern mainstream helped bring Atkinson to clog-making in the late 1970s. He was born and brought up near Sherborne on the Somerset-Dorset borderlands, where his father was a honey farmer. After a series of bad summers in the 1950s obliged Mr Atkinson Senior to sell the business, he moved to Tregaron in Wales to become a highly respected expert on bee disease for the Ministry of Agriculture, and Jeremy was sent to board at the famously liberal public school, Bryanston. Bryanston boys were strongly encouraged to think independently – and anyway this was the 1960s, a period when, he remembers, the Vietnam war seemed to have exposed the older generation in authority as at best unreliable and at worst incompetent. Bryanston felt the effects: one of Atkinson’s classmates, Philip Bagenal, starred in Lindsay’s Anderson’s iconic anti-establishment film If…; the headmaster had his house burned down by pupils who were never identified.

Atkinson didn’t drop out exactly, but he drifted somewhat. He trained as a schoolteacher, but then a government edict said he could teach only in his home county, and that he had to be able to speak Welsh to do so.

Unable to speak Welsh, he moved to London, where he sold motorbikes, but couldn’t stand the city in summer so moved back to Wales and worked on building sites. When he came across a local clog-maker called Hywel Davies in 1976, he worked for him for free for a year, then for six months as a trainee paid for under a government scheme. He was attracted by the craft, and by the marginal life and the history – Davies, as he says, ‘was taught by a man who was taught by a man, in a tradition going back centuries.’

 

 

‘I didn’t want to be part of a mainstream system that was considered insane,’ he says. ‘I mistrusted the basic tenets of capitalism, which were that everyone had to continually expand. I thought – I still do – that we were taking more out of the planet than we were putting back, and that that was unsustainable. In Wales, this was when John Seymour was on his farm in Pembrokeshire telling people to go back to the land, and Satish Kumar was running Resurgence magazine down on the coast. There was a hope that by doing something different you could change things.’

When he started out on his own in a house in the Golden Valley, Atkinson made 1930s styles, and bought in machine-made uppers. A few years later he switched to entirely hand-made, English and Welsh 19th-century designs (each country has its own styles, but many are common to both), after seeing some in a folk museum in Derbyshire. He still makes his adapted patterns of these now, preferring green sycamore for soles over the more traditional alder (he finds that sycamore lasts longer in mud). The making process (which is shown from start to finish in the website videos) takes about eight hours per pair, though of course there is a great deal of work on either side of that, not least the gathering of the wood itself. Customers can send photographs and hand-drawn outlines of their feet, from which he will make a pattern, and cut a sole which he sends out and then amends based on the comments; about one in 10 pairs has to be junked and begun again.

 

He sells to a mixed group, both genders, all ages, and quite a lot of children (‘they tend to be home-schooled’)

 

Watching him at work, the skill that most impresses is the handling of the long-handled clog knives, some of which are considerably longer than an adult’s arm. There are three: the blocker, for most of the shaping; the hollower, to hollow where the foot sits, and the gripper, to cut the groove into which the leather upper is nailed. All are manipulated at strange angles, with one end pivoting on an eye embedded in the workbench. Of course they’re all antique – no one makes them any more – and made from heavy, wrist-aching wrought iron with high-carbon steel blades, which face the wood, away from the user. They look as terrifying as ‘clog knives’ sounds.

The uppers are chrome leather – leather tanned with chromium salts – and he hand-dyes them. He can build in customer’s own designs – the only snag being that the leather contains so much oil, it can be hard to match colours exactly, in the same way it can be hard to match colours with stoneware pottery glazes. Recently he has begun providing a different kind of overall finish to the whole clog that he refers to as ‘unplugged’. This is a knifecut- only finish with no sanding, so ‘you can see the hand of the maker’. The beauty of it is that, like some rough, earthenware pottery, ‘it can catch a moment in time. It’s about trusting your surety of touch, but it’s hard to let something go like that. A lot of people wouldn’t get it.’

 

 

He sells more in winter than summer, to a mixed group of people, both genders, all ages, and quite a lot of children (‘they tend to be home-schooled’). What links them all, he reckons, is unsusceptibility to peer pressure: ‘there’s no question about it, I sell to people who make up their own mind.’ They are by definition the sort of men and women who want to seek out something different. He makes a few handmade shoes for some long-established clients, and does a lot of specialist adaptations of his clogs for people with podiatry problems, fitting orthotic soles, for example, or amending the upper so that people with  conditions such as lymphedema can get them on. (He casually mentions that due to the way they walk, some such clients require more repairs than normal, and when this becomes extreme he forgoes the mending fee and tells them how to do it themselves, ‘because it’s not fair on them otherwise.’ It puts a new cast on his occasional self-admonishments for not being sufficiently businesslike).

Theatre and film companies get in touch not only to have clogs made, but to be corrected on historical detail. ‘Someone rang me up to make some for the National Theatre production of Frankenstein and said they needed a pair of 19th-century clogs,’ he says, his tone implying this was far too vague a request, and recounting the conversation. ‘I said, “who are they for?” “A doctor.” “Yes, so someone quite well off , but where does he live?” “In the woods.” “Ah right. So I’m going to need to make them quite badly and scuff them up, then.”’ He recently made some for Carey Mulligan to wear in the film Suffragette. ‘They sent down her patterns and we did it by post,’ he says, before revealing, as he quite often does, a striking knowledge and awareness of feet and gait. ‘She’s interesting, she looks tiny but she must be about five foot eight [she is in fact five foot six]. She has two feet that are only distantly related really. I saw her in a pair of court shoes at a gala, and I could tell her feet were different then. Maybe it’s to do with dancing.’

 

 

In the course of his 39 years of making clogs, Atkinson has spent a great deal of time researching the subject, and has been to meet craftspeople in Galicia in northern Spain on a funded research trip. He wrote a book (Clogs and Clogmaking) in 1984, and in 2005 trained a young maker, Geraint Parfitt at St Fagan’s, the Welsh folk museum in Cardiff . Given that he and Geraint are the only two hand carvers, does he think of himself as a flame keeper, I wonder? He certainly thinks that if traditional production is to be kept alive, the task will fall to practitioners rather than the Crafts Council, which ‘in my view is a group of people who like craft as a vehicle for ideas. You know, they refer to ceramicists, not potters. I don’t think they’re really interested in rural crafts – if you’re trying to make something functional look beautiful, they don’t really get it.’

‘Sometimes I think I’m like one of those people in Fahrenheit 451, who memorises books so they can recite the text and keep books alive, even though books have been banned. Do you remember? The authorities can’t destroy them because they’re not made out of paper. At times like that, I’ll think, that’s who I am – I’m The Clogmaker. The keeper of the craft. I don’t know if that’s valid or not, but personally I find it slightly comforting.’

clogmaker.co.uk

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