My grandfather, who died at the beginning of World War II, is a hero. He was awarded the George Cross in recognition of a act of selfless bravery which saved a number of lives. His citation appears here. Thirty years separate his death and my birth so his gallantry is something of an abstraction to me. I have the diary he kept, sporadically, between 1920 and 1928, and there is scarcely a clue there of future derring-do. My grandfather seems a little priggish, somewhat romantic, idealistic even. But there is no evidence of boldness. He criticises his shipmates for sloth and drunkenness, but never confronts them. He is hypersensitive to issues of right and wrong. And this is the only foreshadow of his end that can be traced. He kept doing the right thing until it killed him. You could argue that leaving a wife and two year old son to the mercies of the state because of some reckless impulse for correctness was not the right thing to do, but there was a war on, and the great majority of us can only imagine how falling bombs might alter one’s perspective.
I have thought about this a great deal and I believe that it is unlikely that I would have done as my grandfather did. I can’t say for certain, of course. I am the sort who gets involved if a unfair fight starts, or if someone right in front of me needs my help. But I will never travel the world to succour the starving, or do voluntary work with the homeless, or tithe my income to deserving charities, nor did my father. I think, however, that we have both striven for a degree of moral rectitude, if only of a reactive kind. When a situation presents itself I try and do the right thing, and my father was the same. The premature death of my grandfather might suggest that this is an inherited strain of behaviour, but it’s more to do, I think, with the example that our respective fathers have set. I try to help people because that’s what my father would have done. My father had the unfortunate responsibility of growing up in the shadow of a man he never knew, could not consult and could never hope to emulate - my grandfather’s heroism was rubber-stamped and signed by the King, after all – but found his own way of interacting with the world which rewarded him with the affection of everyone who met him.
Heroes are made by circumstance, so the French say. Perhaps they’re right.