Britain's women are set to become the inspiration of an entire continent. Tomorrow, Time magazine will publish its list of "European Heroes" - Britain has five entries, more than any other nation, and four of them are women.
The four British women on the list of 28 heroes are yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur, Body Shop's founder, Dame Anita Roddick, primatologist Dame Jane Goodall, and actress and human rights campaigner Emma Thompson. The author Nick Hornby completes the British quintet.
Thompson was singled out by Time for her dedicated work with HIV and Aids sufferers in Africa. The double-Oscar winner, an ambassador for the charity ActionAid, described herself as "surprised" and "excited" by the accolade - shortly before flying to Ethiopia for a 16-day mission with the charity yesterday.
"I don't really feel like a hero," said Ms Thompson, who has starred in films such as Love Actually and Sense and Sensibility. "How do we define heroism? The whole bloody continent of Africa is wall-to-wall with heroes ... What you do come to realise is that the heroism we see in films and fiction is very different to heroism in real life."
Dame Anita Roddick, described by Time as "a rebel with a fistful of causes" and "an incredible truth-teller", appears on the list thanks to a lifetime's work on environmental, fair-trade, human rights and social-justice issues. "Heroism is about action," said Dame Anita yesterday. "It's about taking energy and knowledge and transferring it into something good ... It's just about standing up for things. We can all be heroes."
The list - which has entries from Egypt, Morocco and Sierra Leone, none of which are normally part of Europe - includes a few well-known people, such as Steffi Graf, the tennis star who founded and funds the Children for Tomorrow charity.
But the rest are achievers not generally known outside their own lands or fields.
Among them are Carlo Petrini, the Italian who founded the "Slow Food" movement as a reaction against fast-food culture; Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; Vika and Olya Kallagova, two hostages from the Beslan school siege; and Sabriye Tenberken from German, blind since the age of 12, who wrote a Tibetan version of Braille and moved to Tibet to teach it.
The historian Dr Tristram Hunt, who wrote the foreword to the special edition of Time, said notions of heroism had evolved from the "Great Men" ideal of historical figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte and Martin Luther, to "people who are cut from the same cloth as the rest of us".
The editor of Time's European Heroes special, Jim Ledbetter, said: "Among the traits we were looking for were an utter dedication of self, determination and a persistence in the face of whatever odds." His team spent more than six months compiling the list after sifting through scores of recommendations. "What makes a hero is somebody who demonstrates talent, persistence, drive and bravery far beyond that of the average person."
Of the remaining three Britons to make the grade, Ledbetter describes round-the-world sailor Ellen MacArthur, as "an incredible symbol of what people can accomplish". Dame Jane Goodall, 70, the primatologist who has become the world's most renowned animal behaviour researcher, is praised for her human rights campaigning in the Third World.
Nick Hornby, who has a child with autism and has donated large amounts of his book royalties to funding TreeHouse, a school for youngsters with the condition, is referred to as "the European Ambassador of Goodness".
Dame Anita Roddick, Body Shop founder
What 'Time' says: "She immerses herself in high-profile campaigns on environmental, fair-trade, human rights and social-justice issues that, to her, were always more important than bubble bath and foot lotion."
Nick Hornby, Author
What 'Time' says: "Hornby could be described as the European Ambassador of Goodness; every chance he gets he's championing a band, a song, a novel, a poet, a charity, an idea."
Ellen MacArthur, Yachtswoman
What 'Time' says: "Professional yacht racing is difficult enough. MacArthur hoists the challenge to another level."
Dame Jane Goodall, Primatologist
What 'Time' says: "The legendary researcher raises her voice to help chimpanzees - and their human cousins."
Emma Thompson, Actress
What 'Time' says: "There are plenty of reasons to admire the on-screen Emma. But Thompson's real priorities are off-screen ... she has made a long-haul commitment to alleviating the suffering of African women."
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