I suppose we can’t use the phrase “national treasure” any more. Too devalued by lazy references to Clare Balding or Bruce Forsyth or Vivienne Westwood. But then what’s the correct nomenclature for people who, in the manner of doing their jobs, personify those qualities that we all imagine to be peculiarly British? They are individuals of a certain type: unconventional, uncompromising, fearless, frank and the sort of person who would be horrified at the idea of being considered a national treasure.
Yet how better to describe Brian Sewell? It’s a description that rather suits him, actually, given his line of country. And Nick Robinson? The ubiquitous BBC political editor is an esteemed representative of the people, holding all those liars, cheats and vagabonds to account. He should be treasured, too. They serve us in very different ways, but they are united by a sense of mission: a desire to tell, and uncover, the truth no matter how cussed it makes them sound. Their vocation is all.
In the age of celebrity, they are anti-celebrities. And in an era when the private becomes the public with a few keystrokes, they have maintained a loftiness that is admirably old-fashioned. Last weekend, however, these two great figures talked about the most private of matters - their health - and I can’t pretend that it didn’t pull me up short.
Nick Robinson has a bronchial carcinoid tumour – a growth on his lung, in layman’s language – and, according to a statement released by his agent, he’ll be taking “a short time off work” to have surgery and then recuperate before covering the forthcoming general election. “Timing lousy, prognosis good,” was Robinson’s typically economical assessment of the situation, while the Prime Minister himself was among those who tweeted goodwill messages.
Brian Sewell is another reluctant citizen in the land of the confessional, but he told the world that he has been facing death for a year and that he didn’t think he’d make last Christmas. In an interview to coincide with the publication of his latest book – a charming novel aimed primarily at children called The White Umbrella – he was at pains to explain that he didn’t want people to think he was telling all about himself in order to help his sales.
“I am staying alive,” said Sewell, “because there are still things I want to do.” And in that, he echoes Clive James, still writing poetry years after he thought his demise was imminent.
At 84 years old, and suffering from cancer, Sewell is physically weak, and the fruitiness of his voice is reduced to a whisper. This novel, we can only hope, is not Sewell’s last testament, but even if it is, it bears witness to a luminous, and, yes, peculiarly British, talent.
Sewell and Robinson are, in their own ways, heroes of our time. And it is unsustainable in the modern world to believe that we should not know what makes great figures tick, or that they shouldn’t give us a glimpse into their private agonies and ecstasies. And, of course, in considering their mortality, it helps us confront ours.Reuse content