True heroes: Why the spirit of the Beach Boys leaves Enoch Powell and Chumbawumba high and dry

Trevor Phillips on the days of summer

The obituary writers worked overtime this week; but I fear that they have spent the greater part of their labours on a figure unworthy of their effort. As my good friend and sometime television mentor Brian Walden has reminded us, heroics are in the eye of the beholder.

His evaluation of Nelson Mandela was, to say the least, controversial. Knowing Walden's devastating capacity for rebuttal I hesitate to differ with him; I've seen him destroy too many in debate to enter into a dispute with him lightly.

However, in the case of Nelson Mandela, I might just enter a doubt. For my own money, he got the facts right, but missed the point. It doesn't matter much whether Mr Mandela has succeeded as a politician; that isn't his value. It would be like evaluating Mother Teresa as a failure on the grounds that she didn't do much for the science of disease control. These people are models and inspirations to the rest of us; that is their purpose. So pouring cold water over them does little to dim their lustre; dare I say it, it may only make the pourer look as though he has missed the temper of the people.

When Danbert Nobacon approached the Deputy Prime Minister at the Brits this week, I doubt whether he had the sort of elegantly worked critique of the Labour government as Walden did of Mr Mandela. If he did, we didn't hear it. But he did have the same outcome in mind - to pour cold water over a People's Champion who, he thought, had betrayed the People.

But Prescott is still thought of as the conscience of the Labour high command; so it looks odd for a supposedly politically aware anarchist to pick him for the ice bucket treatment. He is the one person thought both inclined to and capable of keeping Labour to its historic mission of helping the less well-off against the will of the devious Blairite spinmeisters, even if it means displeasing the New Labour Rich (including millionaire pop stars). It doesn't seem frightfully bright. I think that Chumbawumba should stick to music, at which they are brilliant - "Tubthumping" should be the England World Cup anthem. The words are prophetic:

I get knocked down

Then I get up again

You're never gonna keep me down ...

But stars should avoid the choosing of heroes; it is a complex business. What we can all agree is that great heroes embody the spirit of their times and in some way demonstrate the best of which their era is capable. But who are they? Two contenders for greatness passed away this week; the commentators dwelt on one and ignored the other. They were wrong.

The passing of Enoch Powell unleashed acres of apologias for the great Tory opportunist; we heard that he was a brilliant scholar, about his fine oratory, about his intellectual rigour. We heard far less about the vulgar populism that inspired his most famous remarks, or about the coldly calculating way in which he rewrote that speech with the specific objective of encouraging a minority of thugs and racists, who then went out to do precisely what he could have predicted with his fine professorial mind: to intimidate as many black and Asian families as they could find.The defence that he was the only one courageous enough to raise the issue of racial conflict is fatuous.

His speech was made in an attempt to break the hard-won consensus for race relations legislation which had been arrived at only after four years of debate. His legacy is wholly ugly and malign. And of course, he was wrong in his central proposition that black, or multiracial Britons could never truly belong: from Paul Boating and Baroness Flather in the Palace of Westminster, across to Trevor McDonald, Ian Wright and Scary Spice, it would be hard to avoid the accepted presence of New Britons. There was a poignant irony that Mr Powell's own passing was reported to the nation on television by two black presenters.

Yet relatively little effort has been expended on analysing the impact of a far more significant figure who died this week, Carl Wilson of the Beach Boys. It will no doubt seem absurd to set a mere singer alongside the Great Intellect; but if there is a sound of the Sixties for me, it is closer to the sweet harmonies and teenage lyrics of the Wilson brothers, than the adenoidal grating of Powell's rhetoric. And it is this decade that even now forms the cultural substratum for leadership around the world; why does anyone imagine that Clinton and Blair are so close, but for their common cultural inheritance? Even John Prescott, possibly the least likely member of the present government to be thought of as a reconstituted hippy, really only turned up at the Brit Awards because he was desperate to meet Fleetwood Mac, yet another relic of the late Sixties and Seventies. It is reported that, even in his wet suit, he stuck around for the pleasure of going backstage to meet the band, who, aside from the fact that Mick Fleetwood had left his hair at home, could easily have been back in the mid-Seventies.

The loss of Carl Wilson, from cancer at just 51, marks the end of a kind of summer. For 36 years, the Wilson brothers, with their cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine, have toured the world carrying the sound of sunny skies and foaming surf with them. Even now people talk of the optimism of the Sixties; nothing expressed it better than the close harmonies of "Good Vibrations" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" the songs on which Carl led. Few others could have got away with lyrics as apparently banal as:

Patti Page,

And summer days on old Cape Cod,

Happy times, drinking wine

On my garage ...

And it makes me sad,

Fantasy worlds and Disney Girls

Are coming back ...

Yet even if you didn't know where Cape Cod was, the band conjured up an image of a place in which endless summer was possible; a golden gentle summer, in which there was nothing to worry about except the surf, the girls/boys and the cars. Of course it wasn't real, but that is not the point of the artist, or of the visionary - it is to point us to a better world.

The Beach Boys had their dark side, with alcoholism, Dennis Wilson's death in - of all things, a swimming accident - and Brian Wilson's deep depression. But even this they turned to new possibilities when they became the first of the superbands to plead the cause of the environment in their album Surf's Up.

To people who did not live through this period, it might seem sentimental to lavish this kind of praise on a bunch of Californian surfers. But their sound was pervasive and imitated by others; it became, for a while the language of pop music. The point is that though they were not seen as a "political" band in the sense that even the Beatles were, they gave a generation a sense of optimism and the feeling that a better world was there for the taking. That seems to me a marvellous legacy. And set against the crude, vulgar gesture politics we saw at the Brits, it feels as though the summer's nearly over. Today's popular culture, all hard-edged cynicism, points to a cold-hearted future.

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