Archie Hill Revisited by John Price

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These are two articles I wrote for the Black Country Bugle in 2017 when A Cage of Shadows was reissued.

PART 1 – In a cage of shadows

In 1973, Archie Hill’s first book was published and was acclaimed in The Sunday Times as ‘a work that throbs with vitality, colour and meaning’. Presented as autobiography, it revealed the tortured and violent early life of a child of the Black Country, raised in poverty in the inter-war depression, partially redeemed by the friendships which counter-balanced his troubled home life.

The first half of the book deals with Hill’s childhood, spent around the areas of Stourbridge and Pensnett in the 1930’s. He portrays himself as a boy at war with his own family, unconnected to his mother and frequently suffering at the hands of his dissolute, alcoholic but talented father. The family as a whole was a victim of the depression which deprived Hill’s father of any prospect of regular work and undermined his self-esteem. The narrative progresses though a series of short episodes, each almost a complete story in themselves, dealing with aspects of Hill’s life, the central themes of which emerge as violence, drunkenness, poverty and petty crime.

Family group, Hill top right

Mitigating against the brutality however are the friendships with older men who act as substitute fathers. There is “Old Billy” the glassworker (actually William Swingewood senior, 1871 – 1939), who teaches him about craftsmanship and beauty. Then there are Konk and Pope Tolley, men in some ways leading similar lives to his father but displaying warmth and generosity where his father could only show bitterness and cruelty.  He sees these, and other Black Country men, as representing ‘strength and sincerity and the pride of self in personal craftsmanship’. They are ‘the last threads of Anglo-Saxon England’.

It is Konk and Tolley who introduce Hill to poaching on the estates near Stourbridge and this provides Hill with a glimpse of  the rural life that his forebears would once have enjoyed and, as he observes, was still reflected in places names like Tippity Green, Delph Coppice and Bumble Hole; names which he writes “carry the pollen of catkins and blossoms, a swarming of honey bees”. Other scenes vividly portrayed included a rat-baiting contest and a cock-fight with which Hill gets involved when he is working on the canals

Hill’s life in the Black Country ends in 1944 when he reaches the age of 18 and leaves to join the RAF. His final contact with his father was to give him the hideous beating he had long believed he deserved. Leaving home did not however mean vanquishing his daemons. His time with the RAF saw him drift into alcoholism, although this did not prevent his achieving some success as a military policemen. When discharged, seven years later, Hill almost achieved respectability by joining the Police Force in Hertfordshire and getting married but his drinking undermined both his police career and his relationship. A spell in a mental hospital followed, as a result of a supposed suicide attempt, where the treatment he was given damaged him further. He eventually escaped only to be arrested after several months spend living rough and was then imprisoned for various petty crimes committed while at liberty.

Prison hardened him further but he did meet with the physicist and spy, Dr Klaus Fuchs who introduced him to classical music and the arts generally; this meeting played a large part in Hill’s subsequent development. After Hill left prison, around 1956, he again lived rough as his dependence on alcohol grew before he eventually found the resolution to  start the long process of rebuilding his life. The book proper ends with Hill entering a Salvation Army Hostel near Westminster and saying “goodbye to skid-row”.

There is however an epilogue, in which Hill charts the arduous path he took to recover and work he was then undertaking to try to help alcoholics. We learn that he took several labouring jobs before being appointed to a post on the Sunday People writing the readers advice column. He also married and, in 1963, became a father. There is also an account of a late meeting with his own father and his father’s subsequent death.

When published, the book received excellent reviews but then ran into trouble as Hill’s mother objected to the negative way she was portrayed. The result was that the book was withdrawn in 1975  and an edited version reissued with nearly all references to Hill’s mother omitted and an apology from Hill included in which he acknowledged that his mother was, as much as himself, a ‘product of the social evils brought about by the pre-war Depression’. The beautifully produced republished edition from Tangerine Press restores the original text and classifies the book as ‘an autobiographical novel’ reflecting the breadth of the writings, covering not just memoir but social and cultural history, addiction, homelessness, personal and societal depression, poverty, and survival.

For all its harshness, this is an absorbing book. Hill has a journalist’s eye for the telling details, a poet’s ear for the memorable phrase and a storyteller’s gift of creating compelling narrative. Hill also displays the courage to look deeply at himself and his life and share what he sees with impressive honestly. His account of the Black Country in the depression is never comfortable but is saved from absolute bleakness by the warmth and humanity of some of the characters we meet. A Cage of Shadows deserves to find a new readership and its re-publication is greatly to be welcomed.

PART 2 – When Archie Hill came home

Following the successful publication of Hill’s first book, he was commissioned by the BBC to present a four-part TV series for BBC called Archie Hill Comes Home. This was a series of films in which Hill revisited the Black Country and sought out people and places that were representative of the world of his childhood. The films are an elegy for the vanishing world of the Industrial Black Country, told without sentimentality but with respect and affection. 

Hill’s pieces to camera are very effective, allowing his natural charisma and gifts of expression to come through. Particularly memorable in the first film is the time-box of articles he chooses to reflect the Black County: a blue brick ‘for its strength and dependence’, a nail ‘where it all started’, a bull terrier ‘for its character and strength’, a reed from a cut, a phial of sweat and beer and a piece of cut glass ‘to show the beauty that existed in men’s minds and the craft skills that existed in their fingers’. He closes the film by saying that ‘To me, these things represent the clenched fist of certain, sure, achieved defiance’.

The next two films mostly consist of carefully conducted interviews with craftsmen from the old industries – an iron foundry, a blacksmith, a scrap metal yard, a brickmakers, and above all, a Stourbridge glasswork. Hill describes the work and output of the glass industry in loving detail. Cut lead crystal is ‘as beautiful as diamonds, as permanent as memories’. His friend of childhood, the glassworker ‘Old Billy’  was  the ‘giant of glass’ who once made Hill a sow and five piglets to fit on a silver sixpence; when he put glass to the flame the world ‘exploded into beauty and colour; exquisite, indescribable’. Hill was  ‘pleased, beyond everything that, in the glassworks, men are still in love with their own integrity, will not accept second best as good enough, only first best’.

The final film in the series concentrates on Black Country leisure activities. Harry Harrison is shown giving a reading of his poetry, there is an interview with historian Tom Langley about bare knuckle boxing followed by a visit to The Old Swan at Netherton including comments from the famous landlady, Doris Pardoe. The film ends with a young Tommy Mundon entertaining a packed pub with his extraordinary act. In his writings,  Hill makes the point that his is the last generation that know the old Black Country and, to make these films, he had to dig deep to find such remnants of it that were still left. As such, it is a wonderful document of social history and cries out to be released from the BBC archives into wider circulation.

Hill was now established as a writer and came forward with a steady flow of books over the next ten years. Four works of fiction were published along with further memoirs. Summer’s End in 1976 grew out of the filming for Archie Hill Comes Home  and, like A Cage of Shadows, the book provides autobiographical stories from Hill’s youth, though now told with a mellower and more humorous tone as he realises that, notwithstanding the poverty of the depression, there were still ‘some golden chapters of childhood; that not all my memories were dark and bleak’. Closed World of Love is about Hill’s disabled step-son Barry who lived a severely restricted life being entirely wheelchair bound and unable to speak. Hill tenderly describes how he is able to learn from his step-son by imaginatively putting himself in his place.  The Second Meadow in 1982 recounts the three months he spent living of the land on a remote country estate, making use of his poaching skills to kill animals for food. The title refers to his observation that only brave animals venture to the meadows far from the safety of the woods

Hill’s final book was An Empty Glass in 1984. After a ten year period of abstinence, Hill was  drinking again and his marriage had ended, and this book documents how drink has adversely affected his life. Much of the autobiographical material from his first book is repeated giving that impression that the seam of experience which has formed the basis of his writing had been worked out and he had very little left to mine. At the time of his final book he was living in a caravan in a wood in Hertfordshire, remote from local communities. It was there that he took his own life in 1986, through carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning.

It is hard to sum up a life such as Hill’s. For a time, his great talent rose above the horrors of  his early years and apart from his writings and his TV series he also made radio programmes and produced some fine photo-journalism. The consuming passion he developed for classical music indicates the breadth of his innate artistic sensibility, and he could certainly have achieved more had he been able to free himself from his daemons. All too often, though, his gifts were undermined by a self-destructive streak that caused him to shatter everything he had worked for. Sadly, his creative ability was to flourish for a brief period only, but when it did, he produced the extraordinary writings and outstanding films that are his memorial.