Just too good to be true

Nurses have ditched Florence Nightingale as their founding mother because she was autocratic and bullying. But what use is a shy patron? Heroes are not to be confused with real people. By John Walsh
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The Independent Culture
THE NIGHTINGALE has crash-landed. One hundred and forty-eight years after Florence Nightingale arrived at Scutari Hospital in the Crimea and turned it into a pitilessly scrubbed and scrupulously hygienic place where wounded soldiers might be treated without dying from an infection picked up from one of the pillows, her reputation lies in ruins. The Lady with the Lamp is herself being extinguished.

The founding mother and patron saint of modern nursing had a metaphorical kidney-dish flung at her matronly head by nursing delegates who attended the Unison conference in Brighton on Monday.

Several speakers complained that Nightingale was an outdated and politicised icon of nursing - white, middle-class, English and Protestant - and thus inappropriate for the multi-racial, classless, pan-global profile of the nursing community in the year 2000. Anyway, they threw in, she was a real bitch to her staff and sucked up to all the doctors.

In a gesture reminiscent of a court-martialed officer having his sword broken over the CO's knee, speakers demanded that the Congress of Nurses stop holding their international Nurses' Day on 12 May, Florence's birthday. That'll teach her. They just about stopped themselves from digging her up and giving her a good kicking.

Though the nurses are a little late in "exorcising the myth" of Florence Nightingale - Lytton Strachey did a pretty thorough job of it in Eminent Victorians, published in 1918 - the principle behind their revisionist cries is a fascinating one. It calls into question the kind of people we feel we need to have as our leaders, figureheads, patrons, saints, icons, accredited superstars, the things we require of them, and the changing needs of the flock, the faithful, the rank and file, the worshippers. Whether or not Ms Nightingale was the real "founder of nursing" rather than, say, Elizabeth Fry, the social reformer, she undoubtedly brought a new, steely, antiseptic rigour to patient healthcare that still, thank goodness, prevails.

She became the image of the matron who gets things done, and that is her whole point. Whether someone else "inspired" her or not, wrote more of the nursing rule book, or was nicer to her juniors is beside the point. Our heroes are embodiments of supposed virtues. They aren't to be confused with real people. WG Grace is the central icon in cricketing history, because he scored, bowled and caught opponents out like a bearded machine sent to destroy the enemy. Is the MCC likely to call for his posthumous resignation because a recent biography revealed the Victorian slogger to be, at the human level, a curmudgeon, an overgrown schoolboy and illiberal segregationist of amateurs and professionals?

I don't think so. It's hard, likewise, to imagine Geoffrey Chaucer ever being dethroned from his position as "the father of English Literature" because the Gawain-poet got there before him, because Chaucer once held the rebarbative positions of customs officer and knight of the shires, or because some of the ruder Canterbury Tales involve Carry On material about bottoms and lyften-up smocks.

Both Grace and Chaucer sustain, unchallenged, in the hearts of the faith- ful because we instinctively respond to their largeness. We make patrons and saints out of people who bully us a little, who tell us what to do.

A century ago it was Mrs Beeton, whose Household Management you weren't allowed to peel a parsnip without consulting. Now that her recipes for Braised Squirrel and Elderflower Cordial are no longer required, we've let Delia Smith boss us around, and take on Mrs Beeton's Do-as-I-say-

and-buy-his-tomorrow-morning iconic mantle.

There are those of us who sometimes felt intimidated by Mother Teresa of Calcutta - that combination of goodness and give-up-everything singlemindedness, her implied reproach to the lazy, uncaring generality of mankind. We felt bullied by her goodness, doomed to feel morally stunted. So we made her a saint in order to salve our conscience. Look at that, we said. Marvellous, isn't she? Just not quite human...

Today's legends represent a sorry decline from these pungent mythologies. The modern "figurehead" or "patron" is the means by which public sympathies may be enlisted for a cause; and all that's required of them is an off-the- peg celebrity.

The nature of whatever it is they're supporting need have no special relevance to their life. When the Red Cross need a new "patron" to attract attention to their Landmine charity, following the death of the Princess of Wales, who do they call? David Ginola, the glamorous football star whose connection with war zones and legless people is confined to the last time his own team played against Arsenal.

When the World Wildlife Fund needs royal patronage, they sign up Prince Philip, a chronic and proselytising huntsman, in the teeth of all logic and sympathy.

And now that the singer Sinead O'Connor has become a priest - she became Mother Bernadette Mary of the Latin Tridentine church last week - we can expect he see her signed up as an "appropriate" icon- heroine, by one of the caring professions, any day now.

It's fundamentally an image thing. If only one could zip back to Scutari in 1854 and explain to Florence Nightingale that her martinet behaviour - her determination to get her own way, her courting of senior hospital medics to get what she wanted - are just doing her future reputation no favours.