9 JUNE 2001, Page 24


The most important item in a nation's faith is belief in heroism


0 ur greatest lack today is heroes, of the old-fashioned kind. I have been looking carefully at Sir William Beechey's superb oil sketch of Horatio Nelson, now in the National Portrait Gallery, perhaps the best thing Beechey ever did. The great man is dazzlingly handsome, though his hair is grey, even white in places. He wears the full dress uniform of a vice-admiral, a rank to which he was raised after his great victory at Copenhagen. He has the ribbon and star of the Order of the Bath, and two other stars, one presented by the King of Naples. the other by the Sultan of Turkey. Round the high black stock on his neck hang two gold medals, awarded him for his services at St Vincent and the Nile. It is as though his frame is bolstered by his finery, because underneath the thick uniform lies a frail and tortured body. He had been a fragile shrimp of a boy when, aged 12, he had been rowed out, an apprentice midshipman, to join his ship, and in his rapid ascent to powerful rank and great fame — he was posted captain at the age of 21 — he was sustained not by muscle and fibre, but by the sheer willpower of his fiery spirit. He was a human fighting machine, born for battle, the oaken walls of his ship, spitting fire from its cannon, fitting him like a suit of armour. He had driven his ships, and the men who sailed them, hard, and they responded willingly. Like all natural leaders, he was loved by those he commanded, spontaneously and passionately. He had no winning tricks, just genuine virtues: a sense of justice, total dedication to the task in hand, mastery of his nautical craft, the ability to take decisions rapidly and coolly under stress, and a manifest physical and moral courage which was almost startling in its clarity, there for all to see and admire.

Nelson had driven himself too, almost too hard. Indeed, driven is the word that summed him up: he drove straight at his objective with all the power and speed he possessed, and did not rest one instant until it was achieved. While commanding the naval brigade at Calvi in Corsica in 1794, he was wounded and lost the sight of his right eye. •After the superb victory at Cape St Vincent in 1797, he had seen further action in the Canaries, where he lost his right arm. These appalling disabilities only made him drive himself harder, compensating with his spirit for his defective sight and his inability to wield a cutlass or climb the ship's rigging. Beechey's portrait, though a heroic and handsome mask, does not conceal the lines of stress and pain on his face. He was in constant bodily torment, especially at sea. He was never known to complain, and insisted on doing everything for himself, so far as he could. His men watched him at work, commanding the fleet, and marvelled: he was a kind of god to them. Sailors, especially in those days, were simple people, seeing life in fairly black-and-white terms. They studied their senior officers closely, and could smell indecision and lack of purpose. Nelson carried about with him, for want of a better phrase, the odour of sanctity. We now call it charisma. In the early 19th century, the term was nobility. Nelson was a noble man. It was as though, so the men thought, the God of Battles had specifically marked him out to command, had solemnly designated him to lead them to victory, and had given him extraordinary intellectual gifts to bring it about.

The admiral, though a complex personality, as his search for emotional release with Emma Hamilton reveals, was uniquely single-minded as a war leader. His object was to serve his king and his country to the limit of his power by bringing to action the French, Spanish or any other hostile fleet, at the earliest possible moment, by every possible or impossible means, and then to destroy their ability to make war against England. He trained his ships constantly with this end in view, all the time he commanded them. The story of how, in the months and weeks before Trafalgar, he watched and waited, chased the French all the way to the West Indies and back, and finally seized on the heaven-sent opportunity that brought French and Spanish together and placed them at his mercy, is an epic of desperately anxious naval strategy. Nelson believed that his beloved England was in danger of invasion and conquest, for he did not trust Britain's civilian volunteer army and its amateurish officers to be any kind of match for Bonaparte's ruthless veterans once they got a firm foothold on our shores. He believed he was the only man who could not only prevent it, but also make it impossible by the overwhelming destruction of the enemy's naval power. His strategy therefore had a clear and definite objective throughout the campaign, and the crowning mercy of Trafalgar saw the objective secured with complete success. Bonaparte turned away from the Channel in disgust and frus tration at the news, and launched himself with redoubled fury on the hapless Continent. Nelson must have been aware of the success of all his efforts as he lay gasping his life out on the boards of his ship; must have known that he had accomplished his task, carried out what he had planned so carefully over so many months, and made his beloved England safe. He had done his duty in full, and thanked God for giving him the strength to perform it so well, and the good fortune to know the truth before he breathed his last. His death was a tragedy, but it was also a happy death, a noble one, and those who witnessed it thought it a saintly one. The sailors wept, as well they might, feeling themselves present at an historic moment that would be talked about as long as men went to sea in ships and saw the marvels of the deep.

I was first told the story of Nelson's death when I was, I think, four years old. It thrilled and exalted me then; it still does. As Robert Southey, the poet laureate, wrote in his great Life of Nelson, published in 1813, 'He could scarcely have departed in a brighter blaze of glory. He has left us, not indeed his mantle of inspiration, but a name and an example, which are at this hour inspiring thousands of the youth of England, a name which is our pride, and an example which will continue to be our shield and our strength.' There, indeed, is the point. A genuine, simple, old-fashioned hero is a spiritual weapon, a source of strength to a country and its people.

We spent most of the 20th century destroying the concept of a hero. The process began in 1918 when Lytton Strachey published his Eminent Victorians, a wicked book, which proved to be one of the most destructive in our literature. Its sneering tone, its refusal to admit the existence of simple goodness and the importance of duty, entered into the lifeblood of our history, and poisoned it. We have been hacking away at our heroes ever since, toppling them, pounding them to fragments, smearing them with the filth and corrosive venom of our worst imaginings, and spitting on what is left. As I look around our country today and see its immense and daunting problems, I think to myself: how can we expect the youth of our country to set about repairing the damage we have inflicted on ourselves, when we have deprived them of the most important item in a civic faith — the belief in heroism?