Cork Jackets and Drill - A Story With Original Music by Len Pentin

Cork Jackets and Drill - A Story With Original Music by Len Pentin

Venue: The Atkinson
Town: Southport
Date: 8/5/14

"Cork Jackets and Drill" is a story with original music by playwright Len Pentin about Britain's worst-ever lifeboat disaster which occurred on 9th December 1886 off the coast of Southport. Twenty seven volunteer lifeboatmen lost their lives when two lifeboats, from Southport and neighbouring St.Annes, capsized in appalling weather conditions whilst trying to rescue the crew of the stricken German barque, The Mexico.

Len's story is told in spoken-word and original songs in the folk music idiom. The work is performed by The Cork Jacket Crew which comprises Len on vocals and guitar, together with Bothy Folk Club Resident Singers Chris Nelson [vocals, fiddle], Siobahn Nelson [vocals], Pete Rimmer [vocals, guitar] and Clive Pownceby [vocals, percussion], all of whom have a wealth of experience in the performance of folk music. The story is narrated by noted local actor Colin Wayte and the whole crew do an admirable job of bringing this tragic tale to life [and death].

The title "Cork Jackets and Drill" refers to the only two forms of protection that the lifeboatmen had when going out to sea in horrendous weather, their cork lifejackets and their training [drill].

The Cork Jackets Crew are taking their show [which includes an evocative slide show ] on the road with ten performances throughout the Southport area and beyond, culminating in a performance at The Fisherman's Rest pub in Birkdale on 9th December, which is the 128th anniversary of the disaster. The significance of this venue is that it was to this building [when it was in use as a coach-house] that the bodies of the drowned men were brought and laid out. It is reputed that the pub is haunted by the spirits of the dead men.

Len has done a marvellous job of telling the story of the brave but impoverished fishermen who also took on the role of lifeboatmen. The song-cycle begins with a pair of scene- setting songs "Down to the Shore" and "Soul Savers" which describe the place where the events occurred and the people who were involved: "They call us the part-time sailors but we're soul savers". Both of these songs are repeated at the end of the cycle/story, which adds a great deal of poignancy.

The dreadful conditions which were prevalent in December 1886 are described in "Winter Song" and we follow the men as they set out in the lifeboat, The Eliza Fernley, to try to rescue the crew of The Mexico. The lifeboat capsizes, throwing the men into heavy seas [ "The Great Lifeboat Disaster"].

"Green Light" tells how the families waiting on the shore for news of their loved-ones saw a green flare which they mistakenly took to be from the Eliza Fernley, when in fact it had been fired by the crew of the Lytham boat which had already successfully rescued the crew of The Mexico and who were returning home. By this time, the Eliza Fernley had already capsized. Ironically, having seen the "Green Light",the Southport families left the shore and went to wait by the lifeboat house. If they had stayed where they were, they might have been able to save at least some of the crew as they were washed ashore. As it was, only two of the men survived.

The grief of the bereaved families is movingly recounted in "Have You Seen My Boy", whilst "Penny or Pound" refers to the much-needed sum that the men were paid to undertake a rescue, whilst the penny is the coin that was placed on the eyes of the dead men.

All in all, is a fine piece of work which tells the story of a group of abnormally brave men who risked their lives to help others with fatal consequences. Len Pentin strikes the right balance between historical accuracy and the human element of the story, without becoming overly sentimental. I must admit, though, that I had a lump in my throat by the end of the performance.

Peter Cowley

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