A couple of weeks ago, I was at Lizard Point in Cornwall. The old lifeboat station below Britain’s most southerly cliffs has long since been replaced but the rusting structure remains, a stubborn legacy of heroism past. It was from here, in February 1907, that the biggest sea rescue in the history of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) was launched when the liner SS Suevic was thrown on to the jagged reef offshore in high winds and dense fog. For 16 hours, the lifeboat crews rowed out and rescued all 456 passengers (including 71 infants). The ethnicity or country of origin of those rescued was not recorded, as it has not been recorded for the 146,000 other lives saved during the RNLI’s history.
There has been much talk in recent years of the relevance of some of our monuments to the past. The lifeboat stations that circle our coastline, crewed by volunteers and funded by charity, are living reminders of the humanitarian impulse that remains the best of us. Nigel Farage’s attempts to undermine that spirit last week, by characterising boats saving drowning refugees as a “taxi service for migrants”, went against everything that the Lizard lifeboat and all the other crews risk their lives for. The fact that donations to the RNLI are up 3,000% in the days since is a welcome indication that the spirit that sends those crews out is as appreciated now as it ever was.
Before his time
The standard small-talk question to any journalist is: “Who’s the most memorable person you’ve ever interviewed?” My answer has remained unchanged for 20-odd years: it’s always been Prince, who I wrote about, appropriately enough, back in 1999. He was an authentic artistic genius, not only because of his effortless mastery of every instrument he picked up, but also in conversation, in which every answer came with many layers of playful self-awareness. At the time, he mentioned how he had thousands of tracks and songs in his vaults that had never been released. Since his death, in 2016, a few have emerged including, last week, a whole album made in 2010, Welcome 2 America.
Listening to it now, you wonder if he decided to archive the work because some of the songs sounded so cynical of the early days of the Barack Obama presidency: “Hope and change, everything takes forever – the truth is a new minority,” he sings, presenting the US as still “land of the free, home of the slave”. A decade on, knowing what we know now, his sentiments sound more like prophecy: “The world is fraught with misin4mation,” he noted on the album. “George Orwell’s vision of the future is here. We need 2 remain steadfast… in the trying times ahead.”
There is a green hill…
On Thursday, I went down to have a look at the Marble Arch Mound, the fake hill in central London commissioned by Westminster council to entice shoppers back to Oxford Street. The designers of the £2m structure, the Rotterdam-based architects MVRDV, claim that their bizarre hillock will “open people’s eyes and prompt intense discussion” about the need for green spaces in cities. The discussion points that sprang to my mind were: a) why would paying £4.50 to climb a steepish, muddy mound encourage people to go shopping?, and b) if you wanted to advertise the importance of green urban spaces, why not erect a signpost in the direction of Hyde Park, 20-odd yards away, the original (and free) model for city greenery? There has been much talk of levelling up – the mound presents an irrefutable argument for levelling down.