March 2, 2007

I was in Moelfre towards the end of last year, clearing my parents house before its sale; more of that later. I went for a final walk around the sea cliffs from their house to the harbor and town and came across this statue to Dic Evans, coxswain of the Moelfre Lifeboat.

Non British readers may not know that in the UK the lifeboat service (which performs many of the same services as the Coastguard in the US) is a voluntary organisation. The latest RNLI statistics show in 2006 lifeboats launched a total of 8,377 times (the highest annual number to date) and rescued 8,015 people .

The boats are paid for by public collection, and crewed by local people with deep knowledge of the sea. Often fisherman, working under conditions of extreme danger solely out of concern for others. It is rare for their heroism to be recognised in this way. They are ordinary people, living in the local community who understand that the world is not about selfishness, but about service.

To give you a sense of the danger involved, this is the description of the event in 1959 which earnt Dic his first gold medal:

Dic earned his first gold medal on 27th October 1959 on the reserve lifeboat Edmund and Mary Robinson. The lifeboat was on temporary duty at the station, and launched with a crew of five including one man, a helper, who had never been out on service in a lifeboat before. She put out to the MV’Hindlea’ of Cardiff, which was in distress in a hurricane force wind gusting to 104 miles per hour Dic found the ‘Hindlea’ with one anchor down, but not holding, in 48ft of water. The vessel was swinging from side to side and her engine, which was racing violently, did little to reduce the weight on the anchor chain. The chain was continually whipping clear of the water. The ‘Hindlea’ was being blown towards the rocks in shallow water and the master gave orders to abandon her. Dic steered the lifeboat towards the vessel from the seaward side, but as he did so a tremendous breaking sea rolled the lifeboat over on to her side, putting her mast beneath the water. She was dangerously close to the Hindlea’s’ thrashing propeller, which was so far out of the water that it was above the heads of the crew. The coxswain succeeded in taking the lifeboat alongside the wreck ten times. On eight of these occasions one man jumped into the lifeboat at a time and all were got safely aboard.

His second gold medal for the rescue of the crew of the Nafsiporous involved the lifeboat crew being at seas continuously for 35 hours.

Now, that same village of Moelfre (and many other rural communities around the world) faces a different problem. Its houses are being bought as holiday cottages and local people, the same people who crew the lifeboats and provide the identity of a welsh speaking community, are unable to afford the inflated prices. One can understand, if not support the tactics of Meibion Glyndwr. Social injustice uncorrected provides fertile grounds for terrorism, and more critically the passive support of terrorism by the general population. The destruction of identity is not just a part of the so called march of progress, it also damages much of the diversity of our culture and the social connections that provide people like Dic Evans.

I had planned to blog on my visit to Moelfre yesterday, but found it too difficult. St David’s Day, once a celebration is now, at least for me, a day of reflection and sadness. Three years ago I saw my mother die of lung cancer in the early hours of the 1st March. Ten days earlier my father had died after a series of illnesses. I had taken up the children for the new year to spend time with him as we knew it was likely to be his last. At that time my mother had a bad cough. A week later after seeing the Doctor, the X-Ray revealed a shadow and we went through the progressive series of disappointments which started with hope (a recurrence of TB), progressed to partial despair (we may have to remove one lung) to one of the worst days of my life (you only have weeks to live). It was that last piece of news which caused my father to surrender earlier that he would otherwise done. It is one of the reasons I welcome the forthcoming ban on smoking in any public place. My mother had never smoked in her life, but had become the victim of secondary smoking through many years as a teacher spent in a smoke filled staff room. My mother’s first round of palliative chemotherapy coincided with my father’s last day of consciousness and by great fortune they were next to each other in the cancer unit. I left them holding hands for as long as was possible. They too were heros, the first of their generation to get to University from a working class background. They were fiercely loyal to each other and to a value system based on trust and respect. Neither were prepared to compromise those values for the sake of personal advancement.

In clearing out their various documents I discovered that my mother had not kept any records of my academic achievements, but she had kept the letter from the University expelling me for revolutionary activity. We were reinstated (the University were guilty of a breach of natural justice) but during that period, when many parents would have been on the side of authority, mine provided unfailing support. I think this is the main lesson they taught me. Support and loyalty to your children regardless of what they do. Integrity to your values and to service in your community. A focus on obligation, not an assertion of rights.

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