The Coastguard’s Daughter: finding a story lost at sea | Olivia Lowry | TEDxTruro

The Coastguard’s Daughter: finding a story lost at sea | Olivia Lowry | TEDxTruro

Translator: Tanya Cushman
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven Not every mermaid – would you believe? – weaves a song hoping to lure and deceive. I have it, on the surest authority, down in the depths of the rolling sea, there fell a maid so pure and bright that she shone like a star
on the darkest night. Her eyes were sometimes a blue
of the deepest, darkest hue. Other times, they were as green and bright as the North Star on a clear, cold night. Her hair was tangled black and wild. She was not quite a woman,
but no more a child. A girl who could never quite be tied and anchored to the deep, dark sea. By day, she combed her hair
with a herring backbone, but come the night, and that’s when she felt her most alone. By day, she made friends
with the starfish, shellfish and cray. But come the night, and these friends
would drift and float away. By day, she danced in the seas – diamond shards of sun – but come the night and in the dark, she felt her most undone. So, she swam to the surface
to find solace in the sun. But to her shock and very great fright, she discovered that the sun
did not come out at night. The lonesome maid, bereft and aloft,
heaved herself up to weep upon a rock. Her hair was tangled black and wild, and that night she wept
like a little lost child. Then suddenly and quite miraculously, she saw a dancing light
beaming across the sea. The maid ceased to cry
the moment she gazed back up to the sky. Bright and buoyant, up on high, there hung a great
shining moon up in the sky. The moon was her beacon of light, constant and returning
each and every night. So each and every night, she would swim to the surface
to be with the moon, and never a moment after, nor too soon. She began to learn and love
his changing faces. For her, they sang of evershifting places. Tempest rage, storms below,
but the moon was her beacon of light. Once, there was a fearsome storm, the likes of which made a sailor
wish he’d never been born. Waves rolled, winds billowed
and thunder and clouds ruled the sky. Our mermaid looked for the moon
but found he was not nigh. In an instant, not a moment after, nor too soon, she knew that she must become the moon. There were ships rolling out in the bay, sailors swearing and praying
for one more day. So she climbed a rock in plain sight, knowing how the moon
would come to greet her that night. Relieved, the moon
wrapped the maid in his great light, and she shone like the North Star
on a clear, cold night. Its great, beaming beacon
she became that night, warning the ships of the rocks,
like a guiding light. Because not every mermaid – would you believe? – weaves a song hoping to lure and deceive. Thank you. (Applause) Thank you. So, the first story I ever wrote, I read to a friend of mine
who is also a professional storyteller, and when I managed
to actually look up from the page, she said to me, “Olivia, you’re a writer.” And those words were as magical to me as Hagrid saying,
“You’re a wizard, Harry.” And I thought I could begin
to think of myself of a writer, I just hadn’t quite found the story that would take me from beginning
to think of myself as one to introducing myself as one. It turned out that the story hadn’t
just been under my nose the whole time, I’d been under its roof. The mermaid tale you heard was an extract from a play
called “The Coastguard’s Daughter,” which I wrote based
on the untold and true story of the previous residents of my home. In 1914, the coastguard
of Pentewan Village, Cornwall, and his crew left their post and volunteered
to fight in the First World War. It was his wife and two teenage daughters, Olive and Irene, who stepped up and became the coastguards. One very stormy January night, the two sisters answered a call
about a ship’s light in the bay. Hand in hand, they went
down to the harbor to investigate. The younger sister let go of
her older sister’s hand to tie her boot. In that time, the high ebb tide
lifted and swept her sister out to sea. Despite the efforts of many,
Olive went down and was lost at sea. Her bravery and her story
were so nearly lost with her, becoming nothing more than
a half-forgotten whisper on the winds, one I only heard by chance. Thankfully, my neighbor heard the story and kept a copy
of the newspaper report of it and a copy of the inquest. When I heard their story, I didn’t just feel
a sadness for the sisters; I felt a great burning pride that what they had done
shouldn’t be lost and forgotten, but shared and celebrated, that we will remember them, all of them. So I knew I had this story
I wanted to tell; I just didn’t know how to yet. The spine of the story were the facts: names, dates and fates. I had a spine for these characters, but there was nothing left
in the printed facts remaining to flesh them out. I knew very little of them as people. So it was by weaving in my own stories that I gave these stickmen
characters flesh and heart, a beating heart that brought
their stories to life. I looked into the chambers of my own heart
and found three stories there that really inspired and influenced
my interpretation of that family’s tale. The first was one of the best dates I’ve ever had. (Laughter) He was a sailor, first mate
on one of the old tour ships, had a red port star
tattooed on his left arm just below the coordinates of where he and a crew
had once capsized and been rescued at sea. He literally wore his heart
and the scars of the sea upon his sleeve. One very cold night, he took me to sit along a shore
and watch a meteor shower. As the stars fell,
we tentatively shared our tales, and he taught me that no matter
how lost and desperate you might be, there’s always
the North Star to guide you, whether it is to lead you home or to unpathed waters and undreamt shores. The second is my
great-great-uncle Harry’s. Harry’s portrait always hung
in my granny’s best room, a room we never used. The few times I crept in, it was under the watchful gaze
of Harry’s portrait of a man in uniform. As I grew up, I realized that the man in uniform
was really just a boy. First at 16, and then at 17, Harry successfully lied about his age and volunteered to fight
with the Duke of Cornwall Light Infantry. By 18, Harry was missing, presumed dead in the Battle of the Somme. The third story
is my Cornish grandfather’s. He died when I was very young, and my strongest memory of him
was actually after he passed away. He served with the
Port Isaac RNLI for ten years and in that time helped save 37 lives. I can remember being stood
on the slipway of Port Isaac Harbor, listening to the fishermen’s friends singing shanties at one
of their RNLI fundraising gigs. In that moment, shanties
became the sound of the sea – all that it can give, and all that it can take. So with these three stories
burning brightly in my mind’s eye, I approached “The Coastguard’s Daughter.” But the strongest link
between my story and theirs was not the shared walls of our home, but the foundations of my whole self, being a sister. I’m the youngest of three, and, I’m assured, the most annoying. There’s one thing I’ve learned in life: you can’t win an argument with someone
if you’re wearing their jumper, (Laughter) especially if you didn’t ask. (Laughter) When my parents were feeling charitable, they once described us
as being like a flock of swallows, weaving and diving
in and around each other. When we pushed that charity
to the limits of sanity, they said we were like
a three-headed monster. The push and pull of being so linked
and yet so independently different, that rhythm, I felt, was echoed in the rhythm of
the push and pull of the changing tides, in the relationship between
the salty sea and its sandy shore. So, with all this and much more, we created a story
full of heart and history. We interweaved it
with live shanty singing, and our aim was to celebrate the unsung heroes
of a community who had once lived there and bring together those that still do, to connect ourselves
with where we live and to each other. Storytelling is how we learn
and interpret the world. It connects us both to people and place. A museum, for example,
isn’t just filled with objects at random – it is curated, it tells a story, and in doing so it connects us
both to historical people and place. A spoken word artist
and TEDx alumnus, Phil Kaye, when asking the question,
“Why do we tell stories?” suggests that story
lets us carve our initials into the wet cement of a moment. But what’s more, I think story lets us
carve other initials into the trees, the trees that become the paper
that become our history books. Storytelling is conservation; storytelling is heritage. I found my story upon the shore, but I hope you find the stories
in your hearts and share them, that we keep learning, living and carving more initials
into the monuments of time. Thank you. (Applause)

7 thoughts on “The Coastguard’s Daughter: finding a story lost at sea | Olivia Lowry | TEDxTruro

  • October 5, 2016 at 3:29 pm

    Well done Olivia. I enjoyed watching this.

  • October 5, 2016 at 4:36 pm

    Brilliant Olivia, you had me captivated x

  • October 5, 2016 at 6:57 pm

    Brilliantly professional and I'm very sad, that being away at the time, I missed the performance.

  • October 6, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    Wendy Holland  I thoroughly enjoyed your talk , you are a brilliant story teller.

  • October 27, 2016 at 2:12 pm

    Granny is proud of her grand daughter Olivia who has shown she is a very talented story writer and actress.

  • March 24, 2017 at 2:11 pm

    This is very special Olivia, really very inspirational. And very moving too x

  • November 25, 2018 at 5:57 pm

    Wonderful. You are a very gifted story teller.


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