John le Carre review

The world-famous spy thriller author reviews our history book

Author John le Carre has written about Cornwall's worst-ever lifeboat tragedy in a review exclusively for Cornwall Live. The world-famous author of George Smiley spy thrillers, who worked for the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service in the 1950s and 1960s, lives near where the Penlee lifeboat Solomon Browne went down on December 19, 1981.

(Image: John MacDougal/AFP/Getty Images)
  

Most famous for The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy , he has now written about the book Penlee Lifeboat Station: Service Not Self , in which Rachael Campey chronicles the history of the iconic outpost near Mousehole, including the disaster. The crew had gone to the aid of the vessel Union Star after its engines failed in heavy seas. After the lifeboat had rescued four people, both vessels were lost with all hands; in all, sixteen people died including eight volunteer lifeboatmen. The story of the loss of the Solomon Browne is recounted here is a moving feature that tells the story in a fascinating format like you've never seen it before.

In his review, le Carre writes: After so much has been written and said about the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981, we might reasonably ask ourselves what another book, published thirty-seven years on, can possibly do for us. Wasn’t there even a BBC documentary?

The answer, I am happy to say, is a great deal. It can remind the older of us, as if we ever needed reminding. It can inform new generations for most of whom the tragedy is only history, if that. With an eye to both past and future, it can set the disaster in its own time, while showing us how it shaped our present day. This little book does all that, and more. Penlee Lifeboat Station comes in the stern sea-blue uniform of the RNLI Station Histories series, and you might be forgiven for thinking that it could be heavy going. It is nothing of the kind. Written by Rachael Campey with every regard for factual truth and telling detail, it is nonetheless a work of passionate commitment. Even its earliest pages, tracing the station’s long history, resonate with the understated courage of the 1981 crew of the Solomon Browne, described in the words of the American Lieutenant Commander Russell Smith, who captained the Sea King rescue helicopter, as ‘truly the bravest eight men I have ever seen’.

But these eight men, Campey will have us know, were much more than a bunch of happy-go-lucky brothers of the sea who had agreed to put their lives on the line. They were the direct heirs, however lightly they wore it, to a tradition of noble self-sacrifice that in Penlee’s written records alone goes back to the early 1900s, and in practice far longer than that.

Cornwall got its first lifeboat in 1803, thanks not least to local donations. It was berthed in Penzance. Newspapers of the day describe epic lifeboat rescues in Mounts Bay, with crowds cheering from the shore. From these early beginnings the Lifeboat Families came into being. In the tiny fishing communities that bore them, such names as Blewett, Madron and Wallis became synonymous with seamanship, leadership, bravery and sacrifice. ‘All these generations have Penlee in their blood,’ writes Campey, ‘and the truth is, they all belong to one family; its name is Penlee Lifeboat Station.’

And Campey is not writing only of the past. The names may change, families may change, but the tradition lives on. Lifeboat men know no borders, on land or at sea. In distress, all ships and human beings sail under one flag. All are equally deserving of sacrifice, and every member of this tight-knit seafaring Cornish community knows it. True, the landlord of the Ship Inn hailed from Cheshire. But he was a Merchant Navy man, and no sooner had he arrived in Mousehole than he had joined up with the lifeboat crew and thrown himself heart and soul into village causes. Another crew member came from Yorkshire, another London. But the two of them arrived in Mousehole as boys, and they never looked back. Campey does not let us forget the pains of modern bereavement: how every new widow and grieving mother - even children of the dead - are fair game for unscrupulous journalists on the hunt for so-called human stories. It was bad enough in 1981, but for my money it’s worse today, when even TV journalists of repute refuse to rest until their bereaved subjects have broken down in floods of tears.

I am not a Cornishman, just a convert. I have no experience of the sea, but live on one of the most treacherous stretches of the Cornish coast: ‘an uncompromising lee shore, notorious to mariners,’ in Campey’s words. The Union Star and the Solomon Browne are far from its only victims. Nobody knows how many scores of ships the coast has claimed over the centuries. In 1963 the Penlee lifeboat, after nine hours at sea, rescued the drowning captain of a wrecked Spanish trawler that had foundered a few hundred yards from where our house stands. Having delivered the captain to the shore for urgent treatment - he had been in the water for over three hours - the crew hurried back to the wreck where eleven members of the Spanish crew had perished. In his ‘Return of Service’ - the document that renders formal account of a mission - coxswain Jack Worth makes no mention of the atrocious weather that the crew had faced non-stop for nine hours, and to which they returned as soon as they had landed the sick captain. In the tradition of his kind, Jack Worth hated fuss. His descendants are no different.

Reading this book, I am assailed by the same question that confronts me every time I walk to the end of my garden, turn right and set off along the coastal footpath towards Treen. Within a couple of minutes I am standing on the headland, peering timorously down into the black gulf where remnants of the Union Star and the Solomon Browne must somewhere lie. How would I have measured up, I ask myself helplessly. Even if I had my youth back and possessed the necessary skills of seamanship - which in my case is already unimaginable - where would I have got my courage from? The sea may shrug its shoulders, but I fear I know the answer all too well.

Buy this little book. Read it. The profits will go to the RNLI, but you will be the winner too.

Read the original review on 'Cornwall Live' here