Sue Arnold: They don't make them like Horatio any more

Nelson had courage. Now people say you're so brave when you take a toaster back to Curry's
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The Independent Online

In the last Loaded magazine poll to find Britain's 10 top role models, he was up there beside Jonny Wilkinson and Michael Owen. In this month's BBC Worldwide quest to find the 10 best people to run the world there he was again, rubbing shoulders with Bill Clinton, Desmond Tutu, the Dalai Lama and Bill Gates.

Now I like Richard Branson. I admire his balloonmanship and his sweaters and the way he took British Airways to court for being so beastly to Virgin Atlantic. He's a perfectly nice guy, but for all his feistiness he's not really in the same league as Horatio.

No one is. Being heroic and brave and honourable and, above all, patriotic, is old hat these days. We admire people with nifty feet that can kick balls into nets like Wayne Rooney and people who make smart, snide, off-the-cuff remarks on TV quiz shows like Paul Merton, not people who lose their right eye and their left arm fighting. Maybe if we gave the matter a little more thought we'd come up with a few complimentary things to say about Nelson Mandela, whose mum almost certainly called him after the boy from Burnham Thorpe. But none of them cut the mustard beside the hero of Trafalgar.

Swamped as I have been with Nelsonmania this week, I have been trying to put my finger on what exactly it is about him that floats my boat. After considerable thought, I've come to the conclusion that it's two things. First it's the way he floated his boat, broadside guns blazing, fearlessly pacing the quarter deck with his hands clasped behind his back like the Duke of Edinburgh at a polo match, while enemy bullets whizzed past his head. He was just so damn brave.

But then so were all the other captains of the 29 British men of war who fought off Cadiz 200 years ago yesterday - as indeed were the 33 French and Spanish captains, what my kids learning history at primary school used to call the baddies.

Courage isn't a commodity we have much time for any more. Oh, you're so brave, people say when you go to work with a twisted ankle or tell them you've taken a dodgy toaster back to Curry's for a refund. People who sale single-handed round the world or climb mountains are brave, I suppose, but they're doing it for themselves and their sponsors, not for king and country.

What I remember most about those awesome Trafalgar statistics is that of the 18,000 British sailors who took part in the engagement, 547 were under 17 and of those 100 were not yet 12 years old. The youngest was Tom Wilcott, cabin boy of the Neptune, who was eight.

I wonder if Mrs Appleby, who telephoned and asked me to collect my nine-year-old from school because he'd grazed his knee in the playground, knows about Tom Wilcott? Can't you put a plaster on his knee, I asked Mrs Appleby. Only if I signed a disclaimer in case it turned out he was allergic to plasters, she said. Last I heard, the school had banned running in the playground because it's too dangerous.

George Duff, captain of the Mars at Trafalgar had his 12-year-old midshipman son Norwich with him when his father's head was blown off by a canon ball. Mrs A wouldn't have approved of that, I suspect, even though Norwich rose to become an Admiral and lived to a ripe old age. What she would have approved of was the standard of dress and behaviour required of the Royal Navy's young gentlemen, as they were called circa 1805.

The sea chest of a 10-year-old midshipman had to include 18 linen shirts (frilled), 12 plain calico shirts, three black silk handkerchiefs, 12 cotton ones, 24 pairs of stockings, two tablecloths, 12 cakes of boot-blacking, a silver tablespoon and Robinson's Elements of Navigation. Discipline, loyalty and fighting spirit were taken for granted.

The second thing I admire about Nelson was his passion for Lady Hamilton. Okay he was married and treated his wife badly. But she was frigid and nagged him. I'm an unrepentant romantic. If Emma Hamilton, the greatest beauty of her time chose to love a wispy little fellow with one arm and one eye, so can I. Three cheers for Horatio.