Seeking heroes for an uneasy culture

Seeking heroes for an uneasy culture It’s a new year and it’s time we climbed out of the slough we’ve been in these past 20 years. Having some heroes would help.

We’ve just lost one. That was a surprise to me because, though I fully understood the America’s Cup’s status in popular culture, I had not grasped that Sir Peter Blake had become a national hero.

A figure of determination and leadership, a paragon in his chosen field who had gone on to a higher calling and wowed our Prime Minister. Impressive, but not a Sir Edmund Hillary, I thought.

And I was wrong, the media and the public told me. Screeds of media space and air time, journalists despatched half a world away to his funeral, a state memorial service. Screeds of foreign coverage, too: a page and a-half in Le Monde, the French intellectuals’ daily, two in Le Figaro, France’s “Times”, extended pieces on CNN. Transplanted in England, Blake was an international hero.

A hero is not the same as a celebrity. Celebrities are famous for beauty or vacuous antics — famous for being famous, as the Economist magazine put it, puzzling over the outpourings when Princess Diana died.

Heroes aren’t (italics). Heroes do (italics). Deeds distinguish a Blake from a simpering Cate Blanchett or bopping Kylie Minogue who are just Blanchett and Minogue.

That much we all know deep down. But what deeds make a national hero? After the Blake catharsis I consulted some distinguished specialists in national culture and the place in the nation of extraordinary individuals.

First, heroes are adventurers. They go into the unknown, which may be defined in many ways. That requires courage, often to risk everything. Their deeds are not our deeds, leaden-footed on this mortal coil.

Heroes are most readily visible in war or sport. Blake had that visibility. But remarkable warlike or sporting exploits alone do not make a celebrity (Jonah Lomu, Susan Devoy) into a hero.

To go with astounding success, a hero must exhibit a quality of selflessness — not in the sense of generosity, though that is often an ingredient, but in the sense that the self is submerged in the deed. In some cases that selflessness appears as humility or modesty to onlookers. As one of the specialists I consulted put it, heroes’ deeds are “not done for reward or vainglory”.

And the hero must go beyond what wins immediate fame, to do something that has “moral worth” or is on the “right” side of a cause. Hillary has sponsored good works in the Himalayas, Blake set out to save the world’s waterways and life forms. It was for that that Helen Clark hacked around her South American itinerary to seek him out in November.

That’s still not enough. A hero is a leader who commands fierce loyalty from subordinates or volunteers. (Which we’re told Blake did.)

And even more: a hero is inspirational — motivating and organising people to do things they would not, perhaps could not, otherwise do, bringing out the best in them. A hero stirs the ordinary people, lifts them out of their humdrum.

Blake did all that, too. The red socks, for all the tackiness of the idea, was more than an advertising gimmick. The common people’s gesture came from somewhere in their subconscious. It was in the popular culture, even if in aid of rich people’s dalliance.

Which maybe makes a point. “It is necessary for us that they not be like us,” said one of my informants. So, to put it brutally, the many who, unanointed by fame, live lives of courage and moral worth and value to others are not heroes. A hero’s qualities make a long and exclusive list.

There is another characteristic: a dead hero becomes a legend. Blake, recklessly gun-toting and gunned down by pirates, may now be entering that pantheon. To put it brutally again, dying in one’s prime is a useful signpost on the path to hero status.

But legends are for nostalgia. Do we have heroes for the future?

No one in politics. War is no longer thought dashing. Maybe one or two in business could be but this country does not accept business as the trade of heroes.

So to Peter Jackson, brilliant, successful, a leader and lionised last month by ordinary folk, shades of Blake. The empires of this age are empires of the mind. But Jackson’s “moral worth” dimension has yet to show.

So who do we have? Your call.