A Land Fit for Heroes

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Why the British ruling class like nothing better than a complete failure.

Across a vast white expanse a single figure appears as a dot on the horizon. As the man comes closer, you notice he is puffing at a pipe, while the other hand is buried deep in the pocket of his coat. Hours later he stands in front of you. Removing the pipe from his white-flecked mouth, he speaks: 'Hello, old chap; don't happen to know the latest Test score at the Oval do you?'

We can assume that this brave loner has tried and failed to get to the North Pole/South Pole/climb Everest/walk to the moon or some such. But we can be sure he's British because the British ruling class has an enormous talent, and admiration, for failure. Its heroes either nearly make it, but not quite, or are unfairly outsmarted by some bloody foreigner who either cheated or was just lucky! Poor Scott, who insisted on doing things the old way, was outwitted by Amundsen, a Norwegian who used new technology for his sleds and made it to the South Pole first.

Now Shackleton--another noble failure--has re-emerged from the icy mist of oblivion to become this year's hero. Kenneth Branagh recreated this cheerful, stoical chap so devoted to his men that he dragged them across the great ice and got them home safe and sound. Why, he even selflessly rigged the matchstick draw so that the other fellows got the fur sleeping bags and the big chunks of seal steak. A couple of days later, though, a less well publicised documentary told a slightly different story.

When they returned to Britain, all 23 members of this extraordinary expedition were offered the prestigious Polar Medal. Shackleton vetoed the award to three men. One of them, 'Chippy' McNish the carpenter, was a stroppy Scot who had challenged Shackleton's authority and his strategy for survival. Of course, Chippy built the boat that got them across 800 miles of ferocious seas to South Georgia and eventual survival. But the Boss, as they called him, never forgot--and made sure he had the last laugh.

Even at the extremes--on the Antarctic ice or the peak of Everest--the British class system still functions. Everyone eats the same blubber stew and huddles together in minuscule tents--yet the invisible barriers persist, even when blinkered conservatism and stubborn bigotry lead directly to a terrible death, as they did with Scott.

And the same prejudices shape our definition of what we mean by heroes. What is it we are asked to celebrate in Shackleton and Scott? It isn't their success--since both enterprises failed. Instead it is the way their experiences confirm the division of the world into 'natural leaders' and 'natural followers'. When Shackleton and McNish had their spat on the ice, it ended when the boss reminded the prole that he was still paying his wages. Silence followed--the proper order was restored. The difference was that the other 22, who struggled across the ice for 17 months, were doing it for the money--so their strength and courage somehow didn't count. The 'leaders' were in it for the glory--or to put it another way, they had private incomes. They were 'amateurs'. The British love amateurs, enthusiasts who launch themselves into foolhardy activities for the hell of it, untainted by the pursuit of prizes or personal gain.

Our contempt for people like Amundsen is because they were professionals, trained and prepared. They lacked that confidence that could reassure them that the British ruling class would survive by right, while any number of foreign servants might fall by the wayside. When US Admiral Peary 'conquered' the North Pole (not counting, of course, the generations of Scandinavian Arctic explorers who had travelled the area already) he was given the usual hero's welcome in the US when he returned. It took another 80 years before anyone mentioned his black companion, vastly more experienced than the admiral, who actually got there first!

This month a new film about Muhammad Ali will hit British cinema screens. It will be an opportunity to acknowledge a different kind of hero, a working class hero, though as far as I know, Ali never organised a failed expedition to Antarctica. The difference between Ali and Shackleton? Perhaps it was that Ali's life was a battle against bigotry, racism and the US ruling class; perhaps because millions can identify with Ali and gain from his successes some sense that he is like us, that his life is like real lives that we know. In the end, the heroes of our side stand for many others. They are not different but recognisably one of us. Every class has its own heroes. We should be wary of admiring the qualities that go to make only better rulers--stubbornness, arrogance and a tendency to present failure as success.

So here's a toast to Chippy McNish!