The Randomness of Life Giving Strangers

IMG_1464  I was driving back from Heathrow earlier this week, where Britain’s highest temperature of the day was being recorded,  and I was stuck in traffic on the M25, sweltering in the still heat. The weather reporter on Radio Four was saying it was the hottest recorded temperature since the long hot summer of 1976.

I was instantly transported back to a hot dusty road near Salford Docks, now Salford Quays with its Media City and designer apartments, walking back from grabbing a lunchtime sandwich to my summer job as a clerk in one of the engineering firms on the Ship Canal. Walking with me was my fellow summer temp jobber, a student.

I was waiting for my A level results and the plan was, like most of my friends, to get enough grades to scrape into a low level white collar desk job, get a car and some decent clubbing clobber. That, and girls, was our event horizon.

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The student talked about the wider world, new ideas, experiences and social interactions a working class girl like her had discovered by leaving home and going to university.

She worked on me for the couple of weeks we sat together that steaming summer, in our little ratty office looking over the shop floor, persuading, advising, until eventually I agreed to change my mind and go to college.

I ended up in the same town as her, went round to see her once but she was out, and never got round to trying to visit her again. But she got me to college, the first of my branch of the Byrne clan to go, and I never looked back. It was a transformative social, intellectual and cultural experience, and I for one welcome the increasing number of working class kids going to university, the greatest social leveller and social mobility platform we have in our society. I can’t remember her name, or much of what she looked like. But she changed my life back in that long hot summer of 1976.

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Fast forward years later. My wife and I had only recently met and discovered a mutual fondness for camping. We took ourselves, our wetsuits and body boards off to the surf of Cornwall. I’d been looking enviously at the surfers in the wide bay where we were camping, and resolved to give it a go. As ever with me, I cut the prep, bought a second hand board and launched myself out into the waves without a single lesson.

Being shy, and not wanting to humiliate myself in front of seasoned surfer dudes, I took myself to the furthest corner of the bay, well away from them. And out I went.

As well as skipping lessons, I omitted to check on the tide. The surf was fierce and the tide was fast retreating. I soon got into difficulties. Every huge rolling wave dragged me under in its tow, ripping the board from my hands. I was attached by a line but by the time I fought my way back to the surface and reeled in the board, the next wave was pounding me under again, and the tide dragged me back three times whatever feeble progress I had made clawing my way towards the increasingly distant shore.

One mighty wave tore the board from me and shot it like a rocket upwards. When it fell back the tip hit and broke my shoulder.

I knew I was going to die. I had no strength left, my shoulder was in agony, I was choking on brine, losing feeling in my limbs and starting to give up the fight.

In the distance I could see surfers weaving in and out of the breaking waves. I gathered whatever meagre strength I had left and yelled for help, waving with my one good arm.

A miracle happened. I saw one guy lie down on his board and start to paddle towards me. It seemed to take forever and I was still being dragged under and out ever few seconds. After what seemed like an impossible forever he reached me, grabbed my line and started the slow, painful haul against the waves and tide to the shore. Eventually he hauled me out and I lay coughing and shaking and gasping on the beach. Satisfied I would live, he patted me on the shoulder, said “ok mate” and went back to his surfing.

Again I can remember nothing about what he looked like, didn’t even get to say thanks as I lay in shock, but he – literally – saved my life.

In my previous post I wrote about the people I have to thank for the break into PR and advances in my career and reputation. But for many of us it is random strangers – the unsuspecting hero in a terrorist attack, the medic at the car crash scene, the anonymous organ donor, the conversation with a fellow passenger on a long flight -who shape and even save our lives.

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