The news from a few days ago that Nigel Farage, the ‘Poundland Enoch Powell’ as Russell Brand memorably called him, had berated the RNLI on social media for providing what he called ‘a migrant taxi service’ across the Channel was of course both fascist flatulence about the value of migrants’ lives and a crass trivialisation of the dangers which the migrants and RNLI volunteers face in the world’s busiest shipping lane. It’s no wonder that the RNLI responded so robustly, or that donations to the RNLI soared as a result.
In my university days, a frequently heard sound was the lifeboat siren echoing around Portrush, which sent half a dozen very brave men scurrying from whatever they were doing down to the harbour. The man, whose name I can’t recollect, who owned and/or ran the chip shop was one of them. To see them setting off into the North Atlantic was an intensely memorable sight.
Farage’s drivel also reminded me of a great poem by Patricia Beer which I read recently: ‘Lost’, concerning the Penlee lifeboat disaster of December 1981, and first published five months later in the London Review of Books. Devonian by birth and by residence after years away, Beer became a laureate of the West Country, and this poem captures both the personal and the universal profundity of the tragic events.
The middle two of the six stanzas of ‘Lost’ are almost unbearably poignant:
The storm was here too, blowing its own trumpet,
Holding up the white wings of my neighbour’s geese
As they fought like angels in the growing darkness.
That night the news, fraying from the Stockland mast,
Stuttered across the valley that the Penlee lifeboat
Was lost with a crew of eight.
The image of the geese provides a powerful foreshadowing, and that description ‘fraying from the Stockland mast / Stuttered across the valley’ gives the relaying of the news a timeless sense to it, as though it might be by semaphore rather than the radio and TV transmission mast. Both ‘fraying’ and ‘Stuttered’ are far from obvious verb choices but they work superbly.
Beer’s approach to such difficult subject-matter is exemplary in how it acknowledges and deals with tragedy; and how it shows the impact of that tragedy on the wider community. The distance from Upottery, in East Devon, where Beer lived, to Penlee Point, in Cornwall, where the Penlee lifeboat was based then, is 86 miles, or ‘two moors away and three lighthouses’ as the poem goes on to say, but the congregation in the final stanza are nonetheless deeply affected by it:
Yet when the vicar paused in his prayer that Christmas Eve
There was true silence in the church as though
The lost souls had been found for a few minutes
Who had no time for ‘Nearer my God to Thee’.
It would be difficult, I think, to over-emphasise the brilliance needed to pull off a poem like this, which addresses an event which struck with grief not just the people of Cornwall and Devon, but the country per se and beyond. To a nation brought up on the heroics of Grace Darling, Penlee had a terrible resonance. Beer does not include the heart-breaking familial details of the disaster and hers is not a journalistic account of the deaths of the eight volunteers; rather, it is an oblique yet profound and humane response which only a poet of genius could have created.