Bowie, Peake, Rhodes... On Heroes, Villains and Britishness

All societies need heroes: people whose achievements in life surpass normal human expectations and who represent the qualities that encapsulate the best qualities of that city or country. People we would love to be if we had the talent and the time, in other words.

Villains play an equally important role in helping to channel the collective anger and disgust that mainstream people have about the worst in society. Both are the daily gruel of newspaper coverage.

These last weeks have been a strange time to be British. There has been an intense public debate and media focus, not on the actions of our leaders but on the reputation of some of its more individual citizens.

The death of David Bowie, the catapulting of Major Tim Peake into space and the actions of Cecil Rhodes more than a century ago have received pages of coverage in the newspapers and hours on the television and radio.

The selection of Peake to be the first (male) Briton in space generated an immense volume of media coverage. There was a strong appetite by Britons to share in his genuinely heroic mission to reach the International Space Station 250 miles away and live and work there for six months.

As the moment of blast-off approached the coverage went into overdrive with a series of interviews, profiles and fact files about life in space.

Once he was aloft the search for stories threw up some surprises: how to fix a toilet seat on the ISS; how he called a wrong number from space; and how he will run the London Marathon in space. One newspaper even warned of “peak Peake”.

WE HAVE continually searched for modern heroes to encapsulate a more diverse and pacific Britain

But given that some 220 individuals had already made 376 spaceflights to the ISS since 1998, largely unreported by the media, what was so special about this trip?

The likely answer is that Britain is in need of a hero. Scarred by international condemnation of recent military expeditions into Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, and embarrassed by the expenses scandals of their MPs, people are desperate to find better ambassadors of the Britishness.

And Major Peake is pitch-perfect candidate. A graduate of Sandhurst and a former British soldier and army pilot, his rugged good looks help him fit the bill of a James Bond-style action hero. He is also a modest man, living with his wife and two children in England.

Unlike Bond, he is not engaged in foiling an international plot against the UK that will require a good deal of killing, but instead is carrying out scientific research that should improve life on Earth, for instance by developing new medical techniques, or strong, lightweight materials.

Just as the country had gone space-mad, along came a candidate of villain of the year. He may have died in 1902 but the behaviour of Cecil Rhodes in the southern part of the British Empire was exactly the sort modern Britain would like to expunge from its collective memory.

A strong believer in British colonialism, as a businessman he played a dominant role in southern Africa in the late 19th Century, driving the annexation of vast swathes of land.

Cecil was a racist. There is really no effective defence against this charge. He was a man who described Africans as “despicable specimens of humanity”.

As well summarised in Disclaimer, Rhodes hit the news late last year as a campaign to remove his statue from the University of Cape Town spread to the University of Oxford.

But his efforts and intrigue were admired during his lifetime and he would be ranked alongside the other heroes of the empire: Robert Clive (of India), James Wolfe (of Quebec), and many more.

Few people would rush now to hail them as heroes. But whether #RhodesMustFall from outside Oriel College is a complicated debate that this article does not have space for. But it has highlighted the fact that Britain has a complex inheritance: Rhodes was a brutal colonialist on one hand, but a major benefactor who funded a global scholarship scheme that benefits people he may never have intended to help.

As has been well documented, Britain has struggled to find a place in the world that is based neither on its imperial past nor on its role in the Second World War. This has become ever more important as the UK attracts migrants from its former colonies and its allies and enemies from the European conflict.

We have continually searched for modern heroes to encapsulate a more diverse and pacific Britain often from the worlds of celebrity: the 1966 World Cup Team; the Beatles and Rolling Stones; Andy Murray; Richard Branson; David Beckham.

BOWIE allowed people to find some other identity than as a post-war “stiff upper lip”, unemotional, tough, heterosexual BritonMajor Peake has allowed Britain back into the empire-building game, albeit in the airless atmosphere of space and in collaboration with the Russians and the Americans.

He also gives Britain its version of Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield who achieved worldwide fame in 2013 for releasing a music video he recorded on the ISS of his version of David Bowie’s song “Space Oddity”.

David Bowie: innovator, visionary, the ultimate space oddity. The news of his death led to producers on Radio 4’s Today programme to tear up their schedule. The Guardian devoted its front page the next day to a portrait of Bowie and managed to produce an excellent 12-page supplement within 24 hours. Peake offered his own tribute.

Many of the tributes highlighted the role that he had played in helping that individual understand that they could be whoever they wanted. Bowie allowed people to find some other identity than as a post-war “stiff upper lip”, unemotional, tough, heterosexual Briton.

As one friend said to me in an email on the day of his death: “The whole world stops and spends the day moping over its confused and yearning adolescence which perhaps is not quite over.”

Bowie’s death was a reminder that one person had played a more significant role than anyone else in moving Britons from the post-war, post-Empire, monotone, straitlaced world of the 1960s into the diverse cultural arena that is modern Britain.

But at the time Bowie was no hero to mainstream Britain. With his feminine clothing, androgynous demeanour, declaration of homosexuality and flirtation (briefly, thankfully) with fascism , he was a symbol of where the country was going wrong and to many a villain.

How times change. In years to come some people may question Major Peake’s willingness to take a highly risky journey and separate himself from his young sons.

But for now he and Bowie are what the country is looking for as its representatives. But the search will go on. Perhaps the cautionary note should be to avoid putting anyone on a pedestal — whether metaphorical or physical.

More about the author

About the author

Phil has run Clarity Economics, a London-based consultancy, since 2007 and, before that, was Economics Correspondent at The Independent.

Phil won feature writer of the year Work Foundation Work World media awards in 2009, and was commended by the Royal Statistical Society in 2007.

He is the author of Brilliant Economics and The Great Economists.

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