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An old sea-dog knows a few new tricks
Stuart Macdonald

In today's current brash, high-paced, technology obsessed society, it is rather disarming when someone tells you that theyıve: ³Šalways 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.

When 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.

I 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

Links: -

Falmouth RNLI Web-site

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