Terence Blacker: Yes, they do still make them like Captain Oates

Acts of astonishing bravery take place in war zones but rarely remain in the memory

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This week sees the anniversary of the death of one of those rather mysterious English heroes whose reputations have endured not so much because of what they did but because of what they represent. On 16 March 1912, Captain Lawrence "Titus" Oates, a member of Scott's expedition to the South Pole, stumbled barefoot out of his tent and into a blizzard, never to be seen again.

Ill, lame and horribly frostbitten, he had sacrificed himself – "committed suicide" would be an accurate, though rarely used, description – to avoid putting his comrades at risk by slowing them down. Famously, his last words were, according to Scott's journal, "I am just going out and may be some time."

The life – or, rather, the death – of Titus Oates loomed large in my life when I was growing up. My father was a soldier in the 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, a regiment for whom Oates, a captain in the 6th Dragoon Guards (the regiments merged soon after his death), remained a potent symbol of the heroism of the past. There were commemorative parades on Oates Sunday. At Christmas, a favourite regimental card showed the Dollman painting of Oates's last walk, A Very Gallant Gentleman. But for a last-minute change of heart, I would have been christened "Titus".

Today's world seems to have lost that old-fashioned idea of the self-sacrificing hero. The famous become contemporary icons as a result of public suffering (Princess Diana, Marilyn Monroe) or promise cut short (Martin Luther King, the Kennedys), but it is difficult to think of an ordinary person remembered for a single act of bravery.

Yet, with the right subjects, the admiration of heroes is a force for good. They remind us of the best of ourselves. I suspect the reason why Oates appealed to my father's generation was not so much what he did as the kind of man he was perceived to be.

He was the right kind of gent. Not particularly brilliant (he failed his army exam) or amiable (he was moody and opinionated), he had an instinct for responsible, decent behaviour. He was brave in battle, loyal to his men, fond of his horses. He died, dutifully and without a fuss. Those qualities spoke to previous generations, but they are no longer quite enough. Gentlemanliness is suspect, showiness is almost obligatory. The idea of putting others before oneself is hilariously unfashionable.

It would be wrong, though, to think that we are less courageous than our forbears. Today, our chattering world provides all sorts of conflicting narratives around every public act, complicating heroism. It is almost inconceivable to imagine circumstances in which an Oates-like myth could be created: the memorably characteristic last words, the picture which presents death at its most romantic, the story told and retold with every generation.

Today, acts of astonishing bravery take place in war zones but rarely remain in the memory. The moral complexity of every news story, the arguments for and against every engagement, mean we never have the confidence to say that one courageous man or woman is a model of all we might be, and should be so remembered.

Instead, admiration for someone who has behaved nobly is reduced to a brief moment of mawkishness: an emotional tabloid headline, an awards ceremony for "everyday heroes", attended by tearful celebrities.

It is sad that, as brave as people are today, we still have to look back 100 years to an example of selflessness and bravery. Courage is all around us, but we have lost the capacity, perhaps even the will, to recognise it.

While 'X Factor' is on one channel, let's discuss its merits on another

Popular TV is suddenly under attack from the most unlikely of sources. Money-based game-shows like Deal or No Deal and Red or Black? do not require any discernible talent, the Gambling Commission has realised. Non-skilled gaming for money, without a licence, is against the law.

Meanwhile, an unlikely spat is under way between Simon Cowell, the neatly coiffed mastermind behind The X Factor, and Iain Duncan Smith, the rather less coiffed Work and Pensions Secretary.

According to IDS, Cowell is part of "a twisted culture". His show promotes the idea that young people can sit at home waiting for stardom, that "success is not related to effort and work". "Complete rubbish", says Cowell, offering the politician tickets to his show. Duncan Smith is sticking to his guns, suggesting that the least Cowell could do is support the Government's work experience scheme.

A debate involving this double-act has the makings of a cracking programme. It could be screened by BBC4 on a Saturday evening while most of the other channels devote themselves to vapid talent shows and illegal gambling.

terblacker@aol.com

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