They don't make 'em like Horatio now

January 7, 2005

What makes a hero? Dying used to be a prerequisite - but these days a good right foot is enough. Over five pages, we ask who makes the grade

Are supreme exemplars of national characteristics returning to fashion after being sidelined in an anti-heroic age? asks John MacKenzie

Hugs and kisses for our heroes" read the headlines as the Black Watch returned from Iraq. Perhaps that is the context in which the word "heroes" is most used these days. The hero is the unassuming soldier who lays his life on the line (and sometimes lays it down) to flatter the vanity of politicians. The politicians, who might have been the heroes in the past, now seldom aspire to that status.

But the point about the great heroes of history is that their followers could scarcely imagine them being hugged and kissed. They were titanic figures who transcended the merely tactile sensations of everyday love and affection. And when they were hugged and kissed, as Nelson was by Emma Hamilton, it seemed to demean their heroic status. Nelson's susceptibilities to the sensual charms of the remarkable Hamilton had to be explained away by subsequent generations until, in our more openly decadent age, they became a source of fascination rather than embarrassment.

Some might argue that this is evidence that we live in an essentially anti-heroic time. But all heroes are inevitably flawed, and their flaws only highlight their heroic traits. Nelson had his Emma. David Livingstone was a poor husband and father. General Gordon was an oddball who travelled in search of the Garden of Eden and liked nothing better than to watch bathing street urchins in Woolwich. Lawrence of Arabia was... well, we know all about that. In the post-Second World War era, biographers have been as likely to debunk as to declaim heroes. We felt as though we had lost our innocence and with it our gullibility.

Heroes were the mark of a society rising in status and asserting its power.

They were often a badge of dominance, celebrated in hagiographies, statues, paintings, annual celebrations and the names of places or buildings or streets. Alternatively, they were resisters, inseparably bound up with nation-building patriotism. Nelson, helping to frame the concept of Britishness in dealing with the Napoleonic fleets, was one.

But they were also ready to hand for sub-nations or colonial nationalisms, too, whether Owain Glyndwr or William Wallace or Michael Collins or Mahatma Gandhi. If the 20th-century produced a quintessential heroic resister, it was perhaps Rolihlahla Mandela, who was renamed by missionary teachers after Horatio. In this way did the 19th and 20th-century heroes become intertwined.

But Nelson Mandela's greatest heroic potency was when he was in prison, the unseen figure whose appearance could only be guessed. The mark of the most potent hero is usually death, Mandela's prison years being a form of living death. Indeed, the truly major hero arrives at his status through an iconic martyrdom that finally confirms the saint-like apotheosis. Aspiring heroes are usually well aware of this.

Nelson's hero was James Wolfe. Nelson considered the general's death on the Heights of Abraham at Quebec as a magnificent and confirmatory sacrifice.

He also passionately admired Benjamin West's celebrated depiction of the death scene. When Nelson famously met West at Fonthill, he asked the artist why there had been no more such paintings. "Because, my Lord, there have been no more subjects," West responded. From that moment, Nelson was eager to provide just such a scene. Even at the Battle of the Nile, he had felt a death scene coming on, but he was premature. Seven years later, at Trafalgar, he was to provide the perfect tableau.

Nineteenth-century Britons were enthralled by such icons: Livingstone dying on his knees in prayer at Chitambo's village in what is now Zambia; General Gordon standing at the top of the stairs of the palace at Khartoum patiently awaiting the spears of the awed followers of the Mahdi. Of course they were generally fabrications: icons seldom reflect the grim and messy truth - but they were inspirational because they were believed. The artistic moment became actuality, a reality that reflected, for viewers, a much wider belief. The moment of martyrdom represented the almost necessary consummation of the heroic life, dedication to service of country as well as to slaying the dragons of allegedly evil enemies - the French, Indian "mutineers", Arab slave traders, the fanatical followers of Islam.

T. E. Lawrence was a fervent admirer of General Gordon, and in 1918 he surely recognised that he had failed to reach true heroic status himself because he had no death scene - he was still unheroically alive. Perhaps that was why he wanted to hide himself away under assumed names and ultimately become a martyr to speed on his motorcycle. His enemy had, moreover, been the Ottoman Empire, and that conveyed many more ambivalent sensations than those of his predecessors.

By Lawrence's day, the potency of heroes was in decline. Heroes had represented supreme visions of national characteristics. They were exemplars of qualities that each generation wished to impart to their fellow citizens and to the young. They were didactic tools, secular saints who gathered to themselves not just the icons, but also relics, sacred places, forms of miracles and semi-holy books (later films), all promoted by priests and acolytes who saw them as representing the major turning points of history. All heroes imply a massive "counterfactual". In Nelson's case, it is best expressed in the formula: "We would all now be speaking French."

Nevertheless, heroes are still invoked, even when great power has passed on. The bicentennial celebrations of Nelson at Trafalgar in 2005 will illustrate that, perhaps given added piquancy of the Iraq War and the role of Jacques Chirac, the French President, as an irritant to the Anglo-American alliance. Moreover, Andrew Lambert's recent Nelson biography makes strides back towards the hagiographical tradition. Elsewhere, the Tory conference still thrills to the names of Churchill and (more oddly) Disraeli. To an extent, the location of heroes for the young has shifted to rock stars or sports personalities. Each new movement also defines itself through its heroes: feminism has done this, as has black power and gay liberation. Heroes have often become the icons of the social group (albeit major and often international) rather than of the nation.

But ultimately heroes are endlessly fascinating precisely because they constitute such a mix of characteristics. Like geniuses (and the hero is sometimes, but not always, a genius - Nelson may have been both), heroes often have a streak of madness. They represent the indomitable, indefatigable and inexorable pursuit of objectives that distinguish them from the crowd. But these very qualities often induce an almost megalomaniac vanity, supreme self-consciousness, a self-centred awareness of a capacity to change global history.

That is why subsequent generations find it hard to let them go. They constitute a sort of smorgasbord of qualities and flaws that people in different ages can mix in different proportions. In what seems like a dangerous and endlessly shifting world, individuals still seem to need heroes. Of course, Christ or Muhammad or Buddha continue to be supremely potent, but more secular heroes may well be making a comeback after their post-Second World War decline.

Our approach to them, hopefully generating sensitive reactions informed by scepticism, will act as a major marker of the maturity, sophistication and solid good sense of our society.

John MacKenzie, an authority on imperial heroes, is professor emeritus of history at Lancaster University and honorary professor at St Andrews and Aberdeen universities.

Richard Francis , novelist, biographer, and professor of creative writing, Bath Spa University

"I had a tutor at Cambridge called Arthur Sale. He was, on the one hand, intellectually demanding and rigorous and extraordinarily supportive on the other. He gave the impression that he was quite likely to be either appalled by your work or knocked for six by it.

"The result was that you felt that what you did really mattered. Somehow you were making a significant contribution. If you got it wrong, he would be quite upset. But if you pulled it off, it would be a triumph.

"He wasn't the kind of person who had any interest in self-promotion. He was very quiet and kept in the background, but somehow he had a tremendous impact on people.

"I was already certain that I wanted to be a writer. He made me see that being a critic was a possible career choice, too, that writing critical essays was a creative act and that reading was perhaps more important than writing.

"In a sense, being a mentor is your job as an academic. What is wrong is to try to teach people to do things the way you do them. What I loved about Sale was that he was open to the way students do things rather than pushing down your throat the decisions he had made about the material he read.

"It was a kind of reverse mentoring. If you are open to learning from the people that you teach, you are more likely to be a better teacher."

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