Rebecca Tyrrel: Sir Richard Branson is not unlike Nick Fury in ‘The Avengers’

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Who knew that Richard Branson is the mastermind behind a team of superannuated superheroes dedicated to saving the world from evil? Although more familiar to us of late for his whining about losing his Virgin train services, Sir Richard Branson, it should always be remembered, is not unlike Nick Fury in The Avengers, which for those without geek/nerd husbands/sons is a film with people called the Hulk, Captain America, Thor and Iron Man. They protect the earth from the existential threat posed by the insanely bad Norse god, Loki.

Branson's own superheroes are real and they are known collectively as The Elders. They include Desmond Tutu (aged 80), Kofi Annan (74), Jimmy Carter (87), former Irish president Mary Robinson (a mere 68) and Gro Harlem Brundtland, once the prime minister of Norway (73).

In 2007, Sir Richard (62) was chatting to his friend Peter Gabriel about how communities around the world look to their seniors for guidance. Branson, being a bit of a Nick Fury on the side remember, took the idea to Nelson Mandela, now an honorary member of The Elders due to being 94 and a bit frail, and they came up with the mission to use their "almost 1,000 years of experience" to find answers to apparently insoluble conundrums.

To this end, The Elders have spent the past five years travelling to conferences and troubled countries, deploying their collective wisdom on little problems such as war, poverty and climate change. "As we grow older, we become more tolerant," as Archbishop Tutu, the group's leader explains. "When we are young, we divide the world between those who are wrong and those who are right, and we are more impatient."

Which all sounds Tutu marvellous, although the Archbishop's recent call for Tony Blair (who won't be invited to join The Elders) to be tried in The Hague for war crimes was hardly the kind of diplomatic nicety you'd expect from dear old gramps as he sucked on his Werther's Original in front of Antiques Roadshow.

It is still very early days for The Elders, as a group if not individually, and we wish them the best as they criss-cross the planet in Virgin jets, rather than through magic powers or even hot air balloons. Perhaps one day they will repay Sir Richard by using their centuries of acquired wisdom to get his train franchise back for him.

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