My family is greatly privileged. I would be the first to admit that. But not all of us have accepted that we should stick at what is expected of us. I am talking specifically about my much younger 28 year old cousin, Eleuthera du Breuil. Named after the island she was conceived on, but known as Ella.
Ella stood apart from an early age. At school, she was the youngest ever woman to qualify as a coxswain of an active lifeboat. She was chosen to work in the Antarctic, doing a job which is usually selected for men, living with only a handful of people and hundreds of thousands of penguins, driving boats through seas that belong in horror movies. And now she pulls people out of the River Thames for the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. Ella is privileged, yes. But has it been an easy ride? No.
Ella went to a boarding school whose aim is to educate children from as many different backgrounds and nationalities as possible so that they can learn tolerance and how to work in harmony. The day she arrived didn’t exactly fit that plan. She found that she was sharing a room with a Pakistani girl who, hearing of her lineage and blaming her great grandfather (my grandfather) for the troubles caused by Indian Partition, held Ella up against the wall by the throat.
The school opened her eyes though, toughened her up and also gave her a skill that she has used for life – the ability to drive a powerboat (and mend it if necessary) in incredibly dangerous situations. In her own words she describes one of these moments in the South Atlantic, thousands of miles from any help, alone and in charge of a boat: “When things go wrong and you are standing waist deep in freezing cold water thinking Holy Shit I have broken this thing, you can’t break down and cry. You simply have to dismantle the engine and carefully put it back together.”
What made her so strong, so single minded, so brave? She says her most formative moment came when she was 18. Her beloved father – an alcoholic, divorced from her mother – died suddenly of a heart attack induced by booze. I remember her father well. Good looking, amusing and French, someone to easily fall in love with. “I had just finished college and I was about to go on my gap year,” says Ella. “I was in France waiting for my father to turn up to see me but he didn’t. I called England and asked Mum to chase him up. Mum found him dead. So that was the end of my gap year: he died intestate so, as his only child, I spent my gap year grappling in French and English the intricacies of intestate law – which I didn’t want to do in either language and especially not at 18.”
Her father’s death made her stop and think about who she was and what she really wanted in life. She realised, quite clearly, “that life is actually really short and very unpredictable.” She made a conscious decision not to waste it.
After university she earned a place as Senior Boating officer for the British Antarctic Survey. An unusual prize – indeed King Edward Point, on the island of South Georgia, in the Southern Atlantic is not the kind of place that most people would think of visiting, let alone living for 14 months. Not only were the sea and the climate often inhospitable, but also the atmosphere on the base. Ella explains, “that year was the first time that 50% of the team were women. It was generally known as the year that ‘the dogs left and the bitches arrived.” Nice attitude guys. But Ella coped. Admirably.
Her return home was almost as difficult to acclimatise to. She had to contend with crowds of people (and no penguins) She had to drive a car again (not a powerboat or a JCB) and she had to really concentrate when she went to cross the road.
“Privilege doesn’t matter,” says Ella “you need to work very hard, whether you are posh or not if you are to succeed in life.” Is she ever scared? No, not of the normal things like 40 foot waves, or pain, or danger… but of moving house, of domestic change? Yes, very much. Everyone has their differences. It’s just that my special cousin Ella has more than most. And has so far led an extraordinary life to prove it.