In today's current
brash, high-paced, technology obsessed society, it is rather disarming
when someone tells you that theyıve: ³always had a hankering to be
the skipper of a harbour tug². It becomes even more bizarre when such
a desire is expressed by the Media Resources manager at a leading Arts
College. However, Alan Barnes is not really given to a taste for the
ordinary and as he informed me when I met him over lunch, they do things
a little differently in Cornwall.
To the students at Falmouth College of Arts, Alan Barnes is quite probably
just another face in a sea of faces. Yet were any of these same students
to find themselves in trouble whilst engaging in the local pastime of
repeatedly hurling themselves shoreward on a flimsy piece of fibreglass,
they would be only too happy to see his stern face emerge from the gloom.
Barnes is the coxswain of Falmouth's offshore Lifeboat, "The Will" and
is just one of the hardy network of some 32,000 volunteers around the
UK and Ireland, who keep the RNLI afloat, come rain or shine.
asked of his occupation, Barnes will proudly tell you that he is
the Media Resources manager at the college. He makes no mention
whatsoever of the fact that he has served the RNLI for the last
quarter of a century and has given countless people back their lives.
The reasons for this omission are rooted not in modesty, but in
the simple acknowledgement of a fundamental and decent duty which
must be performed. This interesting, almost paradoxical existence
renders Barnes something of an oxymoron in today's morally corrupt
society. He cares.
Since its inception in 1824, the RNLI has saved over 133,000 lives,
yet Barnes is typically magnanimous about his other job: "I've never
felt that anyone has put me in the position to be judge and jury on
other people. I just go there and try to help them." The longer our
conversation continues, the more I become convinced that Barnes is in
fact, living out most men's childhood fantasies of power and control.
He is able to spend most of the day playing with highly advanced electronic
gadgets; he owns and regularly rides a BMW 1000cc Touring bike; and
as the summer approaches he is called out with increasing frequency
to aid various damsels in distress (well boats are all feminine aren't
they?) in his high powered charger. It therefore comes as no surprise
to discover that his favourite colour is blue.
As far as local politics are concerned, he is, however, a little more
cagey about nailing his colours to the mast. I wonder, as a proud Cornishman,
what his views are on the small but vocal movement for a Cornish Assembly,
along similar lines to the devolved parliaments of Scotland, Wales and
Northern Ireland. His initial response appears unambiguous enough: "Let's
be honest here - Cornwall could never survive on its own. We have to
be realistic about this and I think that they are going a little over
the top to try to achieve a voice for Cornwall." This seems decidedly
frank for a man of such stark contrasts and I am almost relieved when
he backs this up with some stirring Celtic passion. "However, if you
go back through history, there are sound reasons to believe the history
books are somewhat sanitised, so as to prevent knowledge of what happened
to the Cornish people 300 years ago. The English tried to suppress the
language, so as to make us all part of their country. One example of
this was the slaughter of 900 unarmed people in ten minutes, over an
argument about a petition concerning the language in a prayer book."
This may sound depressingly familiar to readers of a Celtic origin.
However, I'm sure that everyone will be relieved to learn that there
are, as yet no plans for Mel Gibson to visit the region, clad in a sou'wester
and waterproofs and sounding distinctly Irish, whilst prodding the air
menacingly with his boat-hook.
ask if Barnes has any other unfulfilled ambitions, aside from skippering
a harbour tugboat. At this he emits a hearty chortle, of which his
BMW Touring bike would be proud. He then tells me fondly of the
plans which he and his wife have made to take the motorbike down
to Portugal on the ferry and then spend some considerable time booming
their way around the rest of Europe. This would, of course, serve
as compensation for the fact that in a few years time he must by
law, retire from the RNLI to make way for supposedly younger bloods.
If there are indeed any younger and more lively at heart than this
Clark Kent of a man, then one feels that the future victims of the
crashing Atlantic rollers will be in expert hands.
To Barnes's eternal credit, he refuses to be drawn into a potentially
damaging exhibition of prejudice, even when quizzed about that most
risible of topics - The Spice Girls. In reply to my probing question
as to which of them he would pluck from the water first (if any) during
the course of a rescue, I merely receive a school-boyish smirk and chuckled
response: ³Thatıs for me to know and you to wonder!² This leaves me
certain that their collective welfare would be in attentive (if not
necessarily safe) hands, should the unlikely prospect of their holidaying
on the Costa del Fal ever arise.
The interview is drawing to a close and the amiable, ambling Media manager
is reasserting himself on the situation, as the dare-devil seadog retreats
into the backwaters for now. However, before he can plonk his feet firmly
back on dry land, he tosses this trawler trailing sea-gull a last tasty
morsel, in response to my question about Cornish smuggling. As an honest
citizen, he of course denies any knowledge of such goings on, but does
recount the rather bungled operation of a group of Moroccan traders:
³They had sailed their yacht from North Africa and their keel was packed
full of drugs. They got into distress in some bad weather off the Cornish
coast and shouted for help. A Customs cutter then appeared out of the
murk right beside it theyıd been tracking it all the way [from the
Mediterranean]. They know what goes on.²
It is really quite refreshing to meet somebody who has dedicated their
life to the service of others and has enjoyed every minute. It has to
be said that he has indeed done and approached things rather differently
to most and I ain't half jealous.
© Stuart Macdonald 2001