Entry from September 16, 2010

Often before — here and here for example — I have written of the importance of military obituaries and the shame it is to us that American newspapers are so bad about running them in anything like the numbers they deserve. The British papers are a lot better, rightly surmising (I think) that there are a lot more readers interested in such reminders of past heroism than there who share the editors’ opinion that it is an old, forgotten far-off song of battles long ago. My old friend Christopher Howse reflected yesterday in the London Daily Telegraph on the anonymous death of Eileen Nearne, the woman his paper described as “the real-life Charlotte Gray” — a fictional movie heroine played by Cate Blanchett in a movie of the same name, released in 2001 — and his words seem to me worthy of a wider audience.

Among other things, he reminds us that one important reason for reading — and writing — such obituaries is that they cut through the otherwise almost unbroken landscape of self-publicity that modern day newspapers, like other media, have become. We need to read others’ accounts of these heroes because their very heroism often prevents them from offering their own. Mr Howse praises The late Miss Nearne, for example, not primarily for her war-time exploits in occupied France, impressive as those were, but for the modesty with which she subsequently returned to civilian life and declined to make a big deal out of them.

Modesty is a virtue generally noticed only in retrospect. That generation of war heroes who have been the glory of the Obituaries page since the 1980s, when Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd invented the modern narrative version of the art, spent decades of ordinariness after their exploits. They did not speak of them. And here, there has been a most encouraging change in the past generation. In the 1960s and 1970s, the old major with the gammy leg and the whisky and water in the saloon bar was, shamefully, a figure of fun. The Angry Young Men of the 1950s gave way to the Sixties silliness that thought war would end if its most selfless survivors were mocked and shunned. That has changed. Veterans at the Cenotaph are now regarded not as old buffers or worse, but as representatives of an unsentimental courage that stood between Britain and barbarism. We can take these men and women seriously partly because they did not take themselves seriously. All those men nicknamed Jumbo or Buffy, sporting moustaches and a fine disrespect for bureaucracy, stormed machine-gun nests, swam rivers under fire, rescued comrades from burning tanks, disregarded their own wounds, and then came back home to Weybridge or Ormskirk for 30 years in the motor business or film distribution. Who, the unanswerable question remains, will enliven the Obituaries page in half a century? Forgotten celebrities from the television jungle, or Big Brother? Surely not. For this new generation, celebrity skips the intermediate step of achievement. It is better to appear on television for a trivially shameful act than not to appear there at all. Today, celebrity is an enemy of promise. It is the end of the road at the cliff”s edge. Those who find fame now will in future be forgotten for attainments better not remembered.

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