Leading article: Lessons in dignity

Related Topics

The death of Henry Allingham yesterday at the age of 113 invites us to consider the meaning of a life lived well. It is not simply his longevity that demands respect.

Although the passing of someone born in the 19th century, who fought in the First World War, who retired from his civilian job – with the Ford Motor Company – in 1961, who was married for more than 50 years to Dorothy until her death in 1970, who has four children, five grandchildren, 12 great-grandchildren, 14 great-great grandchildren and a great-great-great grandchild, cannot but inspire a certain awe.

There was something about the reticence of Mr Allingham that gave him dignity. Of course, it was common among men of that generation not to discuss their experience of war. For them, the horrors were literally unspeakable, in a way that we would not expect today. This was more than just an unwillingness to talk of the incompetence and pointlessness of slaughter; there was a self-effacement about the stiff upper lip. Mr Allingham avoided reunions and refused to touch on the subject with his family until a few years ago when he was persuaded to attend services of remembrance out of respect for former comrades. Asked on his visit to the Somme in 2006 how he wanted to be remembered, he replied: "I don't. I want to be forgotten. Remember the others."

Another death, an anniversary and a birthday, those markers of the passage of time, prompt similar reflections. The death on Friday of Walter Cronkite, the original TV anchor, a term coined for him in 1952, recalled other moments of our common global history. His announcement of the death of President John F Kennedy was notable for its restraint and dignity. What was most powerful about Mr Cronkite's stiff upper lip, of course, was the moment when it quivered. Mr Cronkite was no wallflower, but he had a simple view of the purpose of journalism: "Our job is only to hold up the mirror – to tell and show the public what has happened." Or, as he put it more succinctly in his habitual sign-off: "That's the way it is." As the best-known face of TV news, and an intensely competitive show-off, there was artifice to this objective of telling it like it is, but it was the objective rather than the artifice that mattered.

One of the other memorable events that Mr Cronkite brought to the American people was the Apollo Moon landing, the 40th anniversary of which falls tomorrow. As Rupert Cornwell writes on page 47, the small band of men who have walked on the Moon are mostly extraordinary for their ordinariness. Some have struggled with alcoholism; one has devoted himself to UFO conspiracy theories. Some of them have gone through failed marriages and famous affairs, although, as our correspondent notes, "such lapses are not exactly unknown among humans who have not visited the Moon".

Neil Armstrong who endured "the fiercest ordeal by celebrity", resisted the temptations of hero worship. He lives a modest life with his second wife on a farm in Ohio. Like Mr Allingham, and his aversion to old soldiers' reunions, he has avoided the brass band treatment – indeed, he is playing little part in tomorrow's commemoration of the anniversary of his one small step.

Finally, it was also the birthday yesterday of Nelson Mandela. Born when Mr Allingham was already 22, the former South African president is 91. He is another man whose dignity has inspired millions. From the moment of his release from jail nearly two decades ago, his public bearing and lack of bitterness were exemplary. His country would be in a much worse position today were it not for his moral stature, and the world would be a less hopeful place. His birthday was marked by thousands of "good deeds" around the world carried out in his name.

We believe, then, that there is a common thread running through the lives of the four men that we celebrate in our pages today: Henry Allingham, Walter Cronkite, Neil Armstrong and Nelson Mandela. It is modesty. They were all the authors of, or the witnesses to, greatness. Yet it is a greatness that moves and inspires us all the more for their restraint and absence of self-advertisement. It may be protested that these men were all the products of a bygone age. It may be pointed out that much has changed. But we believe that quiet dignity still commands respect.

It has become a commonplace to bemoan the erosion of the respect accorded to modesty in the celebrity-soaked, how-does-it-feel emotionalism of today's culture. As the youngest newspaper on the block, we beg to differ.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: Outgunned by a lack of military knowledge

Guy Keleny
Ukip leader Nigel Farage in Tiny Tim’s tea shop while canvassing in Rochester this week  

What on earth has happened to Ukip?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions