Terence Blacker: They do still make 'em like Captain Oates

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The Independent Online

This week sees the anniversary of the death of one of those rather mysterious English heroes whose reputation has endured not so much because of what they did but because of what they represent. On 16 March 1912, Captain Lawrence "Titus" Oates, a member of Scott's expedition to the South Pole, stumbled barefoot out of his tent and into a blizzard, never to be seen again.

Ill, lame and horribly frostbitten, he had sacrificed himself - "committed suicide" would be an accurate, though rarely used, description - to avoid putting his comrades at risk by slowing them down. Famously, his last words were, according to Scott's journal, "I am just going out and may be some time."

The life - or, rather, the death - of Titus Oates loomed large in my life when I was growing up. My father was a soldier in the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, a regiment for whom Oates, a captain in the 6th Dragoon Guards (the two regiments merged soon after his death) remained a potent symbol of the heroism of the past. There were commemorative parades on Oates Sunday. At Christmas, a favourite regimental card showed the Dollman painting of Oates's last walk, A Very Gallant Gentleman. But for a last-minute change of heart, I would have been christened "Titus".

Today's world seems to have lost that old-fashioned idea of the self-sacrificing hero. The famous become contemporary icons as a result of public suffering (Diana, Princess of Wales, Marilyn Monroe) or promise cut short (Martin Luther King, the Kennedys), but it is difficult to think of an ordinary person remembered for a single act of bravery.

Yet, with the right subjects, the admiration of heroes is a force for good. They remind us of the best of ourselves. I suspect that the reason why Oates appealed to the officers of my father's generation was not so much what he did as the kind of man he was perceived to be.

He was the right kind of gent. Not particularly brilliant (he failed his army exam) or amiable (he was moody and opinionated), he had an instinct for responsible, decent behaviour. He was brave in battle, loyal to his men, fond of his horses. He died, dutifully and without a fuss. Those qualities spoke to previous generations, but they are no longer quite enough. Gentlemanliness is suspect, showiness almost obligatory. The idea of putting others before oneself is hilariously unfashionable.

It would be wrong, though, to think that we are less courageous than our forebears. Today, our chattering world provides all sorts of conflicting narratives around every public act, complicating heroism. It is almost inconceivable to imagine circumstances in which an Oates-like myth could be created: the memorably characteristic last words, the picture which presents death at its most romantic, the story told and retold with every generation.

Today, acts of astonishing bravery take place in war zones around the world but rarely remain in the news or the memory for long. The moral complexity of every news story, the arguments for and against every engagement, mean that we never have the confidence to say that one courageous man or woman is a model of all we might be, and should be remembered as such.

Instead, admiration for someone who has behaved nobly in the modern world is reduced to a brief moment of mawkishness: an emotional tabloid headline, an awards ceremony for "everyday heroes", attended by tearful celebrities.

It is sad that, brave as people are today, we still have to look back 100 years to an example of selflessness and bravery. Courage is all around us, but we have lost the capacity, perhaps even the will, to recognise it.