Leading article: Lessons in dignity

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The Independent Online

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.