If you have time to think for a minute, answer me this: who do you admire? And can we think a bit further than Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King? Highly admirable, both, but a tad remote from most of our lives, and possibly perilously close to a knee-jerk ‘go-to’ response to the question posed.
When asked, I’ll bet that half the people naming these two superstars and near-saints actually – I mean, really – admire other people even more, like David Beckham, or Posh, or Simon Cowell. I have grave suspicions that most of us admire the rich and famous – perhaps because at least we know of them. Arguably, there is not much we don’t know about them. How many articles – let alone the evidence of our own eyes – tell you Becks is a great footballer, really great, oh and people pay him a fortune and he’s lovely to look at – and, well, you’ve got to admire him, haven’t you?
If the reality in Britain today is that those we admire (as opposed, perhaps, to envy) are the rich and famous (and possibly talented), then schools are on a hiding to nothing with most of their pedestrian career advice.
Remember the moment in ‘Shirley Valentine’ when ordinary, domesticated Shirley, living a life of quiet desperation, discovered that her childhood best friend, now rich enough to afford exotic holidays, was actually a high-class call girl? (And, in passing, what is it about that expression that somehow makes prostitution sound completely respectable?) Anyway, there will be young women today seeing their future in terms of a quite pragmatic capitalising on their looks – “I think I could be the next Kate Moss! She makes a living and mixes with royalty because of how she looks – with plastic surgery/a good hairdresser/a super dentist/the right lighting – I could be her! Bingo!”
More limited in her aspirations but just as purposeful was the 14-year-old who told me she did not care which school she went to, and would not do a tap in any class she attended whichever school it was, because all she wanted was to be a chalet girl. And not for the snow – this was not an Olympic skier in the making. No, she wanted to do it for the man. Specifically, the kind of man she knew she was likely to locate in a ski resort, possibly in her chalet, possibly on the slopes she would scour in her free time. “I just want to marry a rich man and never need a job, and the ski slopes are great places to meet men like that. And he will look after me, and I never need to work again.” Bingo. Her mother was mortified, but shrugged, helpless in the face of her daughter’s logic. This was about ten years ago. I have often wondered if she changed her mind and became a brain surgeon. Unlikely, I think.
It will be difficult for most people if our only role models are sportsmen and women, the people really pulling in the big bucks today. They are likely to set out with distinct and particular talents, mostly gifts of genetics, and make their way to greatness, glory, wealth and superstar status via the 10,000 hours of application and perseverance without which the talent might well have withered. Most of us are wasting our time if we set out to be like them, and paying them a fortune to be the face of a bank or a watch or a shampoo is just rubbing salt in the wound. The rewards of commercial sponsorship after a once in a lifetime sporting achievement (OK, five times in the life of Sir Steve Redgrave) are completely out of proportion, in much the same way as a big lottery win is out of proportion to the £2 invested.
While we admire sporting greatness, are we also looking for more from our icons? Simon Barnes, writing in The Times recently, seemed to think so: “We like the great figures of sport to be something more than great athletes. We also look for wisdom, breadth, profundity and we find it at the least excuse. We want – we even expect – to find exceptionally fine moral qualities in exceptionally fine sporting achievers.” We really want to admire the whole person, not just the flash of talent with bat or ball.
Or do we? Did anyone mention Robin Hood in the list of people past who might be admired? I have a problem with Robin: he’s the perfect role model for ends justifying means, which has never seemed to me to be wholly safe thinking. He robbed the rich to pay the poor – good guy, we say. But wait a minute, are we condoning theft? Er, actually, yes. And what about “Thou shalt not steal” – you know, ten commandments and all that? Ah, but he was doing it for a good reason – because the rich had too much and the poor had nothing and this is early, rough and ready redistribution of wealth, known today as the tax system. Ah yes. Of course. Daylight robbery to rounds of applause. He might even go down in history as a really good guy. Worth emulating. Really? I mean, really?
Well, misgivings notwithstanding, this whole “admire the bad guy” seems to be gaining ground. Maybe bad guys – sorry, “bad” guys – generate more interest and therefore more drama, hence novels such as those by Lee Child, and the recent runaway TV success of ‘Breaking Bad’.
If you haven’t read Lee Child, you have a treat in store – page-turning novels following the exploits of a lone drifter of a ‘hero’, Jack Reacher, who virtually travels America righting unrightable wrongs. Rough justice. Height and weight and fighting expertise always on the side of the good, often little guy, who is helpless in the face of vicious and evil powers until Jack comes along. He does some terrible things, but always to terrible people – so go, Jack. Satisfying conclusions in which the bad guy is gone, seen to, sorted.
And ‘Breaking Bad’? What would you do for hard cash for the family which will be penniless when the cancer finally kills you? It’s a good intention. The gain is for them, not for you. How far will you go? Become a murdering drug lord? Yeah, I can stomach that – look at my reasons – to provide for my family!
Maybe, of this character, most of us would say, “I do not admire – but I do understand. And besides, it’s fiction – isn’t it?”
Yes, it is. But the presentation of people doing terrible things for huge monetary rewards, or the portrayal of ‘heroes’ who perpetrate terrible things because they – and the reader – believe the bad guy deserves it, and the official justice system, for whatever reason, is not able to reach them – what does that do for the collective moral compass we will hand our children?
And in the end, who do you admire, and why?
Hilary Moriarty is national director of the Boarding Schools’ Association W: www.boarding.org.uk