It has been a bad summer for heroes. Not a week has gone by, it seems, without some figure in sport, politics, show business or literature being unceremoniously pulled from their pedestal and then humbled in the press. There is a great debunking industry which tells us that Graham Greene was a hypocritical philanderer, that Marilyn Monroe became insensate from drug dependency and her neuroses, and that James Dean was a homosexual who liked to be 'had' in the hallway of his New York apartment block. Sir Arthur Bryant and Earl Mountbatten of Burma have fallen foul of Andrew Roberts in Eminent Churchillians - rightly, in my view, because one was an old trimmer and phoney, the other the grand panjandrum of self-promoters. Roberts has debunked Churchill a little, too, discovering him to be a racist.
But these heroes remained for years on their pedestals, being toppled only after their deaths. The turnover is faster now, as the cases of Atherton, the footballer Diego Maradona and the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi show. They all began the spring borne high on the shoulders of their supporters but now find themselves reviled and fighting for survival. In Berlusconi's case, the descent from national saviour to seedy corrupter of institutions took only three and a half months.
It is difficult not to recoil from the speed with which we dump our heroes. Last week, one sports columnist referred to 'that revolting little man Maradona'. Yet, not long ago, the same columnist would probably have sold the first relation to hand to get an interview with him.
The clucking pleasure that we take in the fall of our heroes is not only compensation for our own mediocrity; it is also a measure of our rage at the arbitrary distribution of the gods' favours. This was expressed perfectly by Peter Schaffer in his play Amadeus when the court composer Salieri wonders aloud why the bumptious Mozart should be so blessed, while he, the devout and dutiful servant, was not. Why Mozart? Why Maradona?
In most cultures heroes are envied and worshipped in equal parts, but in Britain it is never long before envy takes the upper hand. This is one of the strongest characteristics of our popular press. Newspapers may look friendly but while they promote their heroes there is always one eye searching out the flaw.
The destruction of the man or woman who would raise themselves above the crowd by their daring and their gifts is one of the oldest themes of literature. In ancient Greece the heroes elected themselves to be the pawns of the gods and were treated with a whimsical cruelty simply because of their ambition. The masses are entertained by the fate of their heroes, although of course once the destruction is under way they become bored, as Auden recognised in 'Musee des Beaux Arts'.
'In Brueghel's Icarus, for instance, how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.'
You can draw a convincing parallel between the role of the gods in Greek literature and the popular press in Britain, for the newspapers toy with their creations for the diversion of the masses, just as the gods did.
The fall of the hero is compelling not only because of the punishment of the sin of hubris but also because we are fascinated by the coupling of great gifts
and great flaws within a single personality.
It has become an obsession in the late 20th century and one wonders if the heroes of the past, Lord Byron or T E Lawrence for instance, would have survived the sort of scrutiny that well-known people endure today. How long would it have been before the tabloids had set up Lawrence with a rent-boy wired for sound, or Byron with an actress who reported on his failings in bed?
The scrutiny is such that few reputations can survive intact, least of all those of sportsmen and women whose performance is analysed frame by frame for the overly aggressive tackle, the dubious treatment of a cricket ball, the upper cut in the scrum. Under these conditions W G Grace, the first great cricketing hero, would never have built the reputation that he did, for he was without doubt a very great cheat.
Which leaves two questions. Do we need heroes? And are there any left? Generally we should agree with Herbert Spencer, who lived through the age of great Victorian heroes, but who observed that hero worship is strongest in countries where there is least regard for individual freedom. Much better not to have heroes for then you will not have to suffer the inevitable disappointment or become prey to that curious belief so common here that the fall of a hero somehow measures the decline of the nation. There are people whom we should admire, though, but for quieter virtues; those of privacy, sense, modest bravery, humour, talent and remaining true to themselves. For showing signs of some if not all these virtues I offer 10 names from this century whose reputations still seem to be intact. John McCarthy, hostage and author; Evelyn Waugh, novelist; Sir John Gielgud, actor; John Maynard Keynes, economist; Primo Levi, chemist and author; Wilfred Owen, poet; W H Auden, poet; Emmeline Pankhurst, suffragette; Antonio Gramsci, Italian philosopher and political prisoner; and Captain Robert Scott, explorer.Reuse content