Here in the UK the phrase “our island nation” crops up again and again. From the way people use it, it’s clear that this is some kind of quotation or allusion, but I’m not at all sure where it comes from. It’s the title of a 1937 film, but that’s not necessarily where it started. I’ve heard speculation that the phrase derives from “our island race”, said to be in common use in Victorian times, and a 1905 children’s book, “Our Island History”, was reissued as recently as 2008.
In any case, the prevalence of the phrase and its variants suggests that the idea that we live on an island looms large in the self-definition of the British. There’s an emphasis here on boats and ships that is foreign to me; I grew up in a landlocked state almost 600 miles from the nearest ocean, while here it’s often said that no part of Great Britain is more than 60 miles from the sea.
It’s less than 40 miles from where I live to the coast at Littlehampton in West Sussex. That’s 40 miles as the Volvo rolls; as the crow flies the distance is even shorter. We drove down there day before yesterday just for a day out of the house—when you work from home you can get a little stir crazy. We went to visit the lifeboat station.
You can’t live here long without realizing how dangerous the sea can be, even with all the high tech navigation equipment and safety features of modern vessels. Large ships run down smaller boats, small boats run down tiny dinghies, and if your fellow seafarers don’t get you, the weather might.
On vacation/holiday on Yell (current population about 950), one of the Shetland islands, I came across a memorial for victims of an 1881 storm that sank ten boats with 58 fishermen aboard, a significant proportion of the population. The same surnames appeared again and again on the monument, and it became clear that even taking into account the isolation of the island, which must mean that kinship ties are intricate and surnames widely shared, some families lost all their menfolk, all at the same time.
In those days, fishing boats doubled as lifeboats, and there was no one to go help the vessels in distress, but now the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, one of the largest charities in the UK, trains all-volunteer lifeboat crews and maintains more than 300 lifeboats at over 200 lifeboat stations.
Littlehampton has a fleet of two: the Spirit of Juniper and the Blue Peter I. The Littlehampton volunteers launch one or the other on average once or twice a week, and sometimes both at once. (As I write this, the RNLI web site shows that the Littlehampton crew had a shout—was called out on a rescue—just yesterday, which is at least the second one this week.)
The fellow who showed us around the boats and the station was once rescued by an RNLI crew himself. As a little boy, he thought he’d go to sea on an inflatable air mattress—a stunt he described as “not too clever”—and the RNLI had to fish him out of the water. This sort of thing isn’t unusual; in addition to rescuing unfortunate mariners who’ve run aground or sprung a leak, lifeboats rescue any number of ill-prepared sailors who put out into the English Channel, sometimes without a radio or even life jackets, and get into trouble. Unlike our host’s childhood folly, most of these involve people old enough to know better, and some of them don’t make it back. Most of the stories these days do have happy endings, thank goodness, though we did meet Dead Fred, a weighted dummy used to train lifeboat crews. Dead Fred inexplicably wears both a New York Yankees baseball cap and bunny ears.
The name Spirit of Juniper refers to gin, because the Campaign for Real Gin donated the lifeboat to the RNLI. The Campaign for Real Gin seems to be a sort of drinking club started by students at Cambridge thirty-odd years ago. This has already filtered into folklore apparently, because we were told by one resident of Littlehampton that the RNLI bought the lifeboat with money Oxford students raised from gin-drinking competitions. (Americans may not be aware of the Campaign for Real Ale, a serious movement to promote old-style British ales. Presumably the name of the Campaign for Real Gin is a bit of a joke.)
Blue Peter is the name of the best-known children’s television show in the UK. The BBC chose to give its flagship (as it were) children’s program/programme a nautical theme, which would seem to bring us back to that perception by the British that they are a nautical people. The logo is a sailing ship, the theme tunes are sea shanties, and the name comes from a signal flag: ships raise a Blue Peter to signal that they are ready to leave harbour. Kids who watch the show raise what money they can and, every few years, the show buys the RNLI another lifeboat.
The crew members of the Blue Peter I and the Spirit of Juniper carry pagers, and once they get the shout, they can launch a boat in 9 minutes. Given that bad weather is an obvious cause of boating emergencies, they have to be ready to launch at times when sane people probably wouldn’t venture onto the water. The UK is bound up these days in much-complained-about health and safety regulations, some of which restrict the conditions under which the RNLI can launch, but one volunteer told us with pride that the crews go out anyway, adding that it wouldn’t be much of a rescue service if they didn’t. Like fire fighters and police officers, their jobs require them to go right into dangerous situations. Unlike fire fighters and police officers, lifeboat crew members don’t get paid.
So I’m a big supporter of the RNLI. I’m making them my Featured Link for the next few days, so if you want to learn more you can click through to them from my home page. But I have absolutely no intention of ever getting into a situation in which I’ll need them to rescue me. I avoid any water choppier than bathwater. I can get seasick looking at a painting by Turner. But as a citizen of “our island nation”, I’m glad the RNLI is there.