Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West.
There is an elephant in the room – and it’s wearing an ancient red swimming costume. Well, things might not have been as elephantine as I had feared, but it’s hard to avoid the red cozzy issue. So, as a welcome break from endless analysis and meta-analysis of the local and European Election results, and with summer bounding enthusiastically towards us, (through the rain), it’s all about the beach this week.
It’s an odd experience to see a picture of a 20-year-old you in a swimsuit on the news-stands. But that’s what happened last week. I was fairly worried about what the reaction might be, but have been very touched to find that almost everyone has been extremely kind and lovely about it –e specially other women, for which I am grateful. One thing I found frustrating, however, was that in all the kerfuffle over an old photo of a person in a swimming costume, what the image actually represented was completely over-looked.
On TVs in living-rooms up and down the country, surf-life saving may be about slow motion running, American accents and sun-tans. But on beaches up and down the UK, (often grey with drizzle, with the sea heaped up in a roaring angry mess in the distance) its is about preventing the family holiday from turning into a family tragedy; it is about, as the name suggests, saving lives.
So when I was offered a significant sum of money by a newspaper for the Surf Club which trained me to be a Life-Guard, was home to so many glorious Cornish summers, and where I met some of my closest friends, such as Mini Fry and Peter and Denise Vickery, in return for resurrecting the costume and the pose, I was in a quandary. What would others (many of whom would be tweeps I didn’t know) think? And what would my friends think, when they found out that I turned down enough money for another rescue board for them, when they were struggling for funds?
It became a no-brainer. On went the costume. Out came the luminous-white fresh-from-winter legs. Every woman’s nightmare. There’s not many causes for which winter-white legs would be exposed to the light of day and a camera, but Bude Surf Life-Saving Club is very special. It is where the national army of volunteers who train our beach lifeguards, who keep thousands of us safe every summer and prevent countless holiday deaths, first started – almost exactly 60 years ago.
Australia was way ahead of the game. Maybe the lack of dismal wet summers had something to do with it but by 1953, when Australian Alan Kennedy came over to England for work, surf-life-saving in Australia was thriving. He was advised that Cornwall’s dramatic Atlantic coast would remind him of the surf of home, so he came to a small North Cornwall town called Bude. Before long, he was training local people to attain the ‘Bronze Medallion’ – the Australian Surf Life Saving qualification and had brought over the old ‘reel and line’ rescue equipment from home. So our first Surf Club was born. Others soon sprang up. Now, there are over 70 clubs with 6000 members in Britain, with the Surf Life Saving Association Great Britain as the umbrella body.
These clubs, manned by volunteers, and relying on charity and fundraising alone, train our nation’s lifeguards. Children can begin as young as five as ‘Nippers’, learning the basics, and graduate through the club to gain their surf life saving qualifications and then work the summers on our beaches. These clubs are the unsung fourth or fifth emergency service. They get no state funding, and yet prevent countless accidents and deaths on our beaches every summer.
We all have a reason to be grateful to this volunteer army which comes out to train our nation’s lifeguards, not only on photogenic blue-skied summer days, but on grim and dismal rainy evenings, but I have an extra reason. Bude Surf Club, and the job it qualified me to do, has supported me more than I can say in chartering the choppy waters of politics and life. It has drilled into me that however easy and attractive words may be, they can never replace action. You can’t ‘press release’ or ‘speechify’ change. You have actually to do it. Political deadlines may matter, but not as much as the deadline imposed by a fast-incoming tide in a whomping five-foot surf where, if things are too late, someone actually dies. And it has provided me with the most remarkable and wonderful friends.
If you’re going on holiday this summer in Britain, first, stay between the red and yellow flags – even if you think you’re a strong swimmer. They are there for a reason! Second, don’t take your eye off your children for even a minute – the beach can be a deceptively dangerous place: respect the sea. And finally, you seldom pay to go on the beach, so please, make a donation to Surf Life Saving Great Britain which is training the people who are keeping you and your family safe. Is this a shameless plug? Yes. But I got into fifteen year old lycra for this in front of the nation – I think I’m entitled!