Worshipping the one-offs

When I begin one of these articles I seldom know where I'm going. So let's embark, you and I, footloose on a dangerous topic: hero worship.

Now, I'm not well-equipped for hero worship. It takes me some effort to resist cocking the odd snook. Just mention to me that an idea has been endorsed by someone powerful and I have to strain every nerve to hold back on saying "I'm agin it".

The only hero I'll willingly acknowledge is that tyro soldier of myth who, when marching right-left amid an entire regiment of left-righters, wrung from his adoring mother the exclamation "Ooh look! They're all out of step except our Johnny!". When my son was young he was called Johnny Opposite and I am forced to conclude that the tendency is in the genes.

Having said that, there are three figures in history who seemed to demand my particular attention. The first snuck up on me when I was too young to resist. As a child I was sent down to stay with an aunt and uncle in deepest Cornwall.

In those days, children travelling by train alone had a luggage label tied through a button hole, much like Paddington Bear, and were entrusted to the guard. Off I would go on the Cornish Riviera Express, its chocolate and cream coaches pulled by a green steam locomotive.

When we crossed the Tamar I would lean out of the window, into the heady reek of steam, smoke and hot oil, to read the ultimate signature of Victorian pomp on the bridge: 'I K Brunel Engineer 1851'. It thrills me still.

My second hero was the Iron Duke and one of his campaigns, the retreat to the Lines of Torres Vedras during the Peninsular War, was particularly fascinating. What hooked me was the effrontery and intelligence of the man.

While England and the Anglo-Portuguese army were on a losing streak, Wellington spent pound;200,000 digging a line of fortifications from the River Tagus to the coast north of Lisbon without telling the government.

After a summer's campaigning in Spain, he retreated towards his secretly prepared sanctuary behind the lines, destroying every vestige of food as he went. He paused for a day or two to fight an unequal battle at Bussaco, before luring the French onwards to a winter of starvation and disease which was the beginning of Napoleon's end.

I confess to clambering over the grassy mounds that are all that remain of the defences at Torres Vedras on my very first visit to Portugal. On a rainy night years later in Coimbra, I pleaded with indulgent business associates to be taken to stay in the Ruritanian royal palace-cum-hotel which now stands on the crest of Bussaco ridge. The following morning I paced where Wellington had paced, looking down the steep slope that the French columns had struggled to climb, sharing Wellington's anticipation of the mayhem he had planned for the months to follow. You don't get much sadder than that.

The third was an even less fashionable hero, whom I am confident I should have detested in life, Oliver Cromwell. What I admired about him was his limitless capacity for doubt. Cromwell wrote to the Covenanters, Scottish persons altogether too sure of themselves for their own good, the following or something very like it:"I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, believe that you may be mistaken."

Coming from someone who agonised over every decision and believed he might be mistaken much of the time, that single sentence had enough force to allow me to temporarily overlook even Cromwell's record in Ireland.

Can you imagine a political leader of today, of any persuasion, writing that? Dubya might have written the middle bit but could never have stomached the phrase at each end.

Can you imagine one of the captains of industry who grace the business pages having written it? No; doubt is plain out of style.

If any of us went about modelling ourselves on Napoleon or Florence Nightingale, the neighbours would call in the men in white coats double quick. Even as subjects for an occasional sideways glance, I have to admit that my three heroes are just a touch Biggles-ish and blokey. In trying to imitate any one of them, let alone all three, I should have turned into an insufferable prig.

In fact, what interested me was that they are different from one another in so many ways but all three turned their worlds upside down. They were all Johnny Opposites. They broke every convention of engineering or warfare or the constitution, got into some appalling scrapes and triumphed over all of them. The lesson of heroes, in other words, is not the value of emulation, but the value of questioning and striking out in the direction that seems best, regardless of the received wisdom.

That seems to me no bad New Year's resolution. "To thine own self be true"... and if you find yourself in a minority of one, you may well be right.

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