Responsibility breeds content

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The Independent Culture
UNTIL RECENTLY, I had always thought that the only interesting thing about Will Carling was that his thighs are said to be so massive that he is physically unable to cross his legs. The rest - his rugby playing, his somewhat accident-prone love-life, his surprising career as a management guru, his iffy relationship with Diana, Princess of Wales - seemed relatively predictable and tedious, but those legs, and the way they made apparently normal women go all quiet and glassy-eyed, reminded you that, in spite of our obsession with the subject, female sexual desire still remains a profound mystery.

But now Will has done something so perfectly in tune with the spirit of the times that it is almost as intriguing as his physical deformity. The break-up with his blonde of the moment was apparently precipitated by her reading an early draft on his computer of an article expensively commissioned by a Sunday newspaper. In it, she discovered that references to her, and presumably their baby, were written in the past tense; this seemed oddly significant. It turned out that her lover had been working on the public account of his desertion before he got around to breaking the news to her. Even in the golden age of the celebrity confessional, this sense of priorities, putting the serialisation before the dumping it describes, represents something of a first.

Vulgar? Insensitive? Crass? Of course, but in 1998 it could be said that the need to express your private pain to as many people as possible is an essential part of public life. Without descending to the popular tabloids, the casual reader of the weekend press was able to share details of Des Lynam's adultery, Margaret Cook's insights into the infidelity of her ex-husband, the Foreign Secretary, and more than he or she would normally want to know about the rift between Anne Robinson and her daughter over something she had written earlier.

For reasons which may have to do with pre-millennial panic or simply the dullness of most people's sex lives, we live in a voyeuristic, masturbatory culture where public figures eagerly enact our fantasies and desires, acts of betrayal and misery, rather as Sam the barman in the sitcom Cheers used to sleep with women on behalf of Norm, Cliff and the other sad sacks who hung out at his bar.

But there's more to the Carling story than an emotionally confused male making money out of the unhappiness he has caused. It happens that he was one of the first sportsmen to finesse his career into a broader context, using the new seriousness with which sport is now taken to present himself not only as rugby captain, but as a captain of life, a leader.

In 1995, he wrote a book with Robert Heller entitled Way to Win: Strategies for Success in Business and in Sport, which modishly presenting sport as metaphor for management - the scrum as a business meeting and so on - analysed successes of pitch and field with many a solemn pronouncement. Sebastian Coe's recovery from a defeat by Steve Ovett to win an Olympic gold medal in another event showed that, well, if one thing doesn't work, maybe you should try another.

It would probably be deemed old-fashioned to introduce the phrase "officer material" at this point; it was certainly not among the management bullet- points in Way to Win - but it's surely true that, by claiming to be a leader, a person puts himself into a different category from, say, Des Lynham's lover.

To pursue your own financial concerns at the expense of others, to play the celebrity flashing game, to be more concerned above all else with your own image, reveals a profound lack of officer material. Even if we don't know it, the rest of us care about such things.

Glenn Hoddle could be as eccentric as he liked, employing New Age gurus and leaving Michael Owen out of early games of the World Cup, but it was when he revealed confidential details of the way Paul Gascoigne reacted when he was dropped from the team that he lost public support. If Gascoigne had told the story, there would have been no problem; from the coach, the boss, we expect less self-interest and more dignity.

Oddly, being of officer material is less to do with morality than with loyalty and dignity. It is not the misdemeanours of, say, a Cecil Parkinson or a Jonathan Aitken that shows them up so much as their squirming, indecorous subsequent behaviour. Conversely, the President of the United States, Bill Clinton, can be portrayed as a middle-aged groper and lech, yet somehow, by taking responsibility for his actions, by not blaming other people, by attempting to behave with a sort of honour, he seems, if not exactly a great general, then undeniably an officer.