As you may know my former brother-in-law, Henry Worsley, the polar explorer, died unexpectedly last weekend. He had fallen just 30 miles short in his quest to be the first person to cross the Antarctic peninsula, unaided and unassisted, raising £100,000 for charity in the process.
In this past week that amount has more than doubled, and is still growing. What’s more, his death has led news bulletins, websites and newspaper pages around the world. Tributes have come from figures ranging from Princes William and Harry and the head of the British Army, to David Beckham.
The coverage has been a touch overwhelming. A week previously, the redoubtable Henry’s brave, lonely trudge through the frozen landscapes he so adored had a more limited profile: those who listened to his mesmerizing nightly audio messages on the shackletonsolo.org website and those who had seen some of the prior publicity about the trek.
Seeing his image everywhere and hearing his poignant, troubling last message repeatedly this week has proven a double-edged sword for all who loved this remarkable man. Undoubtedly, it is of some comfort to know he touched so many lives and raised so much money in the best of causes, but it is a constant reminder of the giant hole that he has left in the lives of his wife, Joanna, and the rest of the family.
This level of coverage says as much about us as it does Henry, for all his many, rare qualities. To the media and the public he touched, Henry clearly represented the type of heroic character that many fear is becoming increasingly scarce.
Those that did know him have been keen to emphasise the fuller character: the self-deprecating family man, the art aficionado, painter, needlepoint exponent, teacher of embroidery to prisoners; the Harley-riding, ferret-keeping, cricket-lover.
But that can’t be the media’s narrative. Not when you have a decorated former Royal Green Jackets and SAS officer who served with distinction in Northern Ireland, the Balkans and Afghanistan, and who was on his third polar expedition in the footsteps of his own hero, Sir Ernest Shackleton. Plus “so close and yet so far” is a classic British scenario. Too easy then to focus on the daredevil action hero so many men wish secretly we could be. But to my mind, the scale of coverage is rooted in something still deeper.
Writing about Henry, one turns to words one seldom uses about anyone these days: honour, stoicism, valour, leadership, serenity, courage, understatement, selflessness. In short, he was a man of unique integrity and empathetic intelligence.
In a week otherwise dominated by names like Trump, Google and Cameron, each failing shamefully to demonstrate those qualities, it is small wonder that we are moths to the flame of the rare few who live lives filled with honour. RIP Henry. We were all so proud to know you.
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