Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: March 2024

The Royal National Lifeboat Institution: Compassion, Bravery, and Tragedy

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. It was founded in the London Tavern in Bishopsgate on 4 March 1824. At this time around 1,800 ships a year were wrecked on the coasts of Britain and Ireland. Under the aegis of the RNLI, lifeboat stations were strung around the coasts like jewels, but these were not gaudy, meretricious, coloured stones, but plain shelters housing sturdy boats ready to put to sea in the worst of conditions.

Their volunteer crews have saved nearly 150,000 lives, an average of two per day since its inception. But this comes at a cost and more than six hundred people have died in the service of the RNLI. Graves and memorials in coastal towns and villages bear witness to tragedies. One story stands for them all.

The historic fishing village of Mousehole in the southwest of Cornwall is a fairytale place. Huddled cottages of Lamorna granite tumble down to the perfect little harbour once home to the great pilchard fleets. There are seals swimming off the coast and a tidal pool for wild sea swimming. The summer brings holiday makers and in winter the Mousehole Harbour Lights draw crowds from early December to the first week of January. But every year on the 19 December the lights are dimmed in memory of the crew of the Penlee lifeboat, the Solomon Browne.

On the 19 December 1981, the Union Star was sailing from Holland to Ireland with a cargo of agricultural fertiliser. On board were the captain, four crew members, the captain’s wife and their two daughters. Around 6pm the ship’s engines failed, and the fuel system became contaminated with water. As rough seas and powerful winds blew the coaster towards the dangerous shore, she lost one of her anchors. The Penlee lifeboat launched in a hurricane, ploughing against ninety knot winds and 18m waves as it struggled to came alongside the coaster. Once in position, the crew of the Solomon Browne waited to catch people as they jumped for the lifeboat. They radioed to the coastguard that they had rescued four of the eight people, but as they made a final desperate attempt to save the others, radio contact was lost. Ten minutes later the lights of the Solomon Browne disappeared. In the morning wreck debris from both boats washed ashore.  (“The 1981 Penlee Lifeboat Disaster – RNLI History”)

The sea beyond Mousehole harbour may look unthreatening,
but a memorial in the church above the village recalls the tragedy of the Solomon Browne

For all its charm and beauty there is a sadness about Mousehole as in all those towns and villages which have lost brave crews to the sea. The compassion and selfless courage which has led generations of volunteers, often from the same families, to risk their own lives to help others, inspires a measure of love and admiration for the RNLI which is seldom equalled by any other institution.

So, it was sickening  when in 2021 Nigel Farage condemned the RNLI for  rescuing asylum seekers trying to reach the UK in small boats, claiming that the lifeboats were providing “a taxi service” for illegal migrants. Influenced by his demagoguery and the moral panic about migration stirred up by the right-wing press, some members of the public verbally abused rescuers bringing people to safety, others tried to prevent the RNLI launching a rescue boat in Hastings just days before twenty-seven people drowned in the Channel.

Priti Patel, then Home Secretary, and sharing Farage’s views, introduced the Nationality and Borders Bill which sought not only to make it illegal for asylum seekers to enter the UK without permission, but also to make it a criminal offence “to facilitate the entry of asylum seekers” by taking them ashore – an offence which was to carry a maximum sentence of 14 years.

But reaction was swift. The RNLI released harrowing footage of a sea rescue and volunteers detailed the desperate state of asylum seekers in overcrowded boats at risk of drowning in the Channel.

The RNLI chief executive, Mark Dowie, said that the lifeboat service had always rescued whoever needed their help: “We were pulling German airmen out of the Channel in the Second World War.” The RNLI, he emphasised, exists to save lives at sea without judgment. They do not question why people get into trouble, do not ask who they are or where they are from.

Subsequently, the RNLI’s fund raising, with money coming from one off payments, new supporters, and increases in regular contributions, reached £200,000 in a single day, thirty times the usual average, and a record year of donations followed.

Some quirky fundraising campaigns ensued. Partly in jest, Simon Harris sought to raise money for a new RNLI hovercraft to be called the Flying Farage. Donations reached £238,130 of its target £250,000 this Easter weekend. Harris has made clear that the specific proposal was tongue in cheek and that all money raised will go directly to the RNLI to be spent at their discretion.

Recently the local shop owner on the island of Sanday in the Orkneys accidentally ordered eighty cases of Easter eggs instead of eighty eggs. He organised a raffle in aid of the RNLI to get rid of some of the 640 excess eggs. By Maundy Thursday this had raised over £3,000, and the food company producing  the eggs has agreed to match the final total.

Meanwhile,under pressure, and with bad grace, the government accepted an amendment to the Nationality and Borders Bill in December 2021. The RNLI was exempted, if people’s lives were in danger, from laws criminalising anyone helping asylum seekers to enter the UK.

William Webb Ellis: Ill-Founded Fame ?

The first sign appeared in late January when I noticed that the wine rack had been pushed to one side to accommodate a generous collection of beers. The Six Nations Championship was imminent, and my partner was making his preparations. When I was teaching I always received two forewarnings as the Head of Games would hand out Sweepstake Charts. A little judicious questioning at home usually enabled me to surprise the staff room with the moderate accuracy of my predictions.

Now there is only the one alert signifying that during  the coming six weeks I will be periodically banned from the television room unless I guarantee To Remain Silent or at least Not To Ask Stupid Questions. (This stipulation rises to a crescendo during the cricket season.)

The temptation to watch some exceptionally large men apparently bent on inflicting the maximum amount of pain on one another is not great and I rarely infringe the ruling. Occasionally, under the mistaken impression that a match cannot yet have begun or must be over, I encounter the pre- or post-match discussion. Once I recognised one of the pundits who had been on my PGCE course many years ago. My partner has never been more impressed: “Lock Forward,” he murmured in awed tones, “three caps in the 1989  British Lions tour of Australia. Part of the England side that won the Five Nations Grand Slam in 1991. You knew him? You never mentioned this before?”

“Well, I hardly knew him, we just did our teacher training in the same department.” I dredged my memory. “He was the only one who avoided a scolding if he missed classes, and the first to be offered a job.” A faint recollection stirred, “I think it was in quite a prestigious school, but they didn’t have any slack in the English department, so they offered him some junior Latin. We were all impressed until he revealed he only had O-level Latin. It was obviously the rugby they were after.” My partner gave me a look of contempt, clearly I did not recognise the importance of my brief encounter.

The only other reminiscence I could conjure involved standing chatting to the great lock forward as we waited to go into the examination hall. Suddenly he was joined by half a dozen of his mates, and as deep, hearty voices resounded, I found myself trapped in a forest of massive denim thighs: “It was like being surrounded by giants. Literally, I was at eye level with all these huge thighs, while voices boomed above me.”  “The second row,” said my partner with a weary and withering sigh, “are always very tall.”

This was the longest discussion we ever had of rugby  until we took a holiday in the south of France. There in Menton, at the top of the Colla Rogna hill, on the site of the old castle above the town, sits a stunning little cemetery. Its fortunate occupants, shaded by the cypress trees, can view the harbour and the promenade, the Mediterranean stretching in one direction to the Italian Riviera and in the other to Cap Martin, and all beneath an intense cerulean sky. We climbed up through the narrow streets of the old town, and at the top I wandered through the section of the cemetery generously provided for the residents of foreign colonies. In the nineteenth century  large numbers of minor poets, academics, and clergymen from chilly, northern countries brought their agues, distempers, and infirmities to the sunny place, though they seldom survived for long.

He Died Learning
A quotation from the Song of Solomon 2, verse 11. Confidently interpreted today as an expression of sexual love, but in Tawney’s day more likely interpreted as love of god and church.

A sudden shout from my partner drew my attention to one flat and one upright marble stone, surrounded by beribboned railings and fronted by a collection of plaques.

The upright stone provided all the explanation I needed:

The small plaques presented by rugby teams and enthusiasts pay further tribute to this achievement:

Here lay the man hallowed by rugby enthusiasts around the world. He attended Rugby School from 1816-1825 and is credited with picking up the ball in a school football match of 1823 and running with it thus inventing the new game, whose agreed rules were later written down by boys at the school in 1845.

The veracity of this story is however in some doubt. It did not surface until 1876, more than fifty years after the putative event, and four years after the death of Webb Ellis. In the intervening years no one seems to have heard it. Its origins lay with  Matthew Bloxam, Old Rugbeian, and antiquarian of Rugby, who claimed to have learnt it from an unnamed source. In 1895 when the Old Rugbeian Society investigated the story they were unable to find any first-hand evidence of the occurrence. Contemporaries of Webb Ellis did not remember the infamous match and others recalled that running with the ball, though not unknown, both before and after 1823, remained forbidden in the 1830s.

Moreover, almost concealed beneath these new stones, the original flat grave marker makes no reference to rugby, recording only the death of the rector of a London church.

It is indeed improbable that the actions of a single boy changed the game and more likely that it evolved gradually. Some authorities* go further suggesting that the 1895 investigation was an attempt by Rugbeians to assert their school’s authority over the sport at a time when they were losing control of it following the schism between rugby league and rugby union, and that for this they needed a specific character and a good story. Webb Ellis’ relative obscurity for the rest of his life added to the mystique and he died entirely ignorant of the role posthumously attributed to him.

Back with the world’s oldest tournament. On the penultimate Saturday  a triumphant shout reached me in the garden as England won 23-22 against Ireland who had been tipped for the Grand Slam. It was also drawn to my attention that Italy had defeated Scotland 31-29 in Rome. This was Italy who had earlier lost 36-0 to Ireland, before beating Scotland, who beat England, who had just beaten the Irish: it was results like these that made the tournament so fascinating. I glazed over.

Today the tournament ended with Ireland winning the championship, albeit no Grand Slam. The beer bottles are in the recycling, the wine restored to its usual place, the television quiet, and on the Cote D’Azur an oblivious William Webb Ellis slumbers on.

*E. Dunning and K. Sheard, Barbarians, Gentlemen, and Players: A Sociological Study of the Development of Rugby Football (1979)

See also Michael Aylwin, Webb Ellis didn’t even invent rugby, so why is his name on the World Cup? in The Guardian 16 September 2019. Feelings run high on this issue.

Patrick Caulfield: Death After Lunch

The first time I saw it Patrick Caulfield’s After Lunch caught and held my attention and it continues to do so whenever I visit the Tate Gallery. The cartoonish, black outlines of the deserted restaurant, tables, chairs, the half obscured fondu set, the bored waiter staring across empty space, are suffused with an eerie blue light. Then, in contrast, from the wall at the back of the restaurant strident colours blaze out, a picture within a picture, a photomural of the Chateau de Chillon. In front of this but barely obscuring it Matisse-evoking goldfish swim around a plastic castle in an aquarium.

Clearly it is not a Swiss restaurant, more likely one of those themed restaurants which enjoyed popularity in the England of the sixties and early seventies. I have no idea what first drew me to the painting save that I wanted to know where and why, and what happened next.

After graduating from Chelsea Art School in 1960, Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005), visited Crete where he was inspired by the hard bright colours and fascinated by the Minoan frescoes. Later, looking at the postcards he had bought, he realised that the printer had added black lines around objects in the frescoes. Intrigued, he began using similar black outlines in his own work.

He developed a graphic style, depicting everyday objects – lamps, glasses, clocks – with deceptive simplicity in flat, bold colours: the banal rendered intriguing. At first he used household gloss paint on board, later oil paint, and finally acrylic on canvas.

But it is always the larger stylised interiors of empty public buildings, offices, and restaurants, which attract me most. I am fascinated by the saturated planes of colour bound by heavy back lines  contrasting with the photorealistic landscapes on the walls. They hold me spellbound, transfixed by the unease with which I might regard a snake charmer. For although I find them alluring there is also a sense of foreboding  about them. The anonymity and melancholy  with which I feel quite comfortable in the works of Edward Hopper, here seems sinister and menacing.

When Caulfield died, William Feaver’s obituary recalled  a discussion about famous artists’ epitaphs. Someone had asked  Caulfield what he would put on his own gravestone. The response: “DEAD, of course.” And that is exactly what it says on his grave. Designed by Caulfield himself, the curt monosyllable is laser-cut through a block of granite like a  child’s letter puzzle. Eye-catching amidst the crosses and angels, open books and obelisks, it brings me to a halt as my first sighting of his painting did. And I am not alone, for the arresting design exerts a magnetic lure over amused visitors. The distinctive grave has become one of the most popular in Highgate East.

Patrick Caulfield’s Grave in Highgate East.
A Contrast with the Angels, Crosses, and Urns

Perhaps people empathise with the blunt statement, welcome its frankness. I recall a friend who, wearied by delicate, well meant, euphemisms said crossly, “You don’t lose people. You lose your keys. People die.”

It is a view with which I sympathise and by all accounts Caulfield’s funeral was a joyful celebration of the life which preceded the death. And yet, fascinated  as I am by the memorial, its stark, bleak message chills me, fostering the same disquiet which I experience when I stand in front of those rather threatening interiors.

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