Heroism? No, Stoicism (posted 26th July 2007) Mike Russell has ventured into difficult territory (as he recognises) with his blog for Wednesday 25th July about Scottish identity, but as usual he carries it off with verve and insight. It is as dangerous as it is common to speculate about national characteristics. What are often described as cultural or social traits are typically not specific to that country or culture, it is just these traits manifest themselves in different ways and to different degrees.

I remember that one English friend when I worked in Nottingham ventured that people down there thought I was too "aggressive" (who are you calling aggressive, pal?), while I in turn often thought the English were too reserved and uncommunicative.

But if "reserved and uncommunicative" is hardly a virtue, the other side of the same coin - stoicism - absolutely is. The flood situation in England has led English newspapers in a desperate search for tales of "extraordinary human endeavour". They have failed miserably because rather than heroism, what they encountered more often than not was simply straightforward English stoicism, whose visible qualities are often reserve and lack of communication, which, while it can often be turned to advantage to make good drama for patient observers over a full length play, does not quite cut the mustard over a one-minute-yawn newspaper article.

This in turn has led to some unconsciously hilarious reporting. In a desparate search to make a drama out of a crisis (sorry for cliche, but nonetheless true) the Daily Telegraph invited readers to send in their own stories in the context of what the Telegraph described as "tales of extraordinary human endeavour". While it is funny at one level, it is also indicative of the tabloidisation of much of the the so-called quality media today.

Someone should have tapped the Telegraph reporter gently on the shoulder and pointed out problems with their "tales of extraordinary human endeavour". The Telegraph actually said (and notice the "fought" in the following quote);

"Tales of extraordinary human endeavour have emerged as thousands of people fought to get to safety and limit the damage. In the Herefordshire village of Sutton St Nicholas, a 95-year-old woman was rescued by a neighbour as she clung to her sofa while water levels rose over her boots. One family, including an eight-month-old baby, was dragged by firemen a mile through waist-high water to safety. And an intrepid postman used his own car to carry out a special delivery of the new Harry Potter book to children in Evesham, Worcestershire. Do you think the reaction to the recent extreme weather has demonstrated the “Blitz spirit” at its best? If you are among the million people affected by flooding this week, what has the reaction been like in your area"

I'm sorry, commendable initiative and all that, but tales of "extraordinary human endeavour"? I mean, give me a break. If I was a 95 year old woman, I would hope at least one neighbour would finally say "Hey, Harry, don't you think we should do something about old what's-her-name next door? The water must be over her ankles by now....". The real story would have been if neighbours had knowingly abandoned the poor old woman and her wet boots to their fate. And as for firemen going a mile through waist-high water (which, by the way, millions of kids do at the beach each year), we are hardly talking Humphrey Bogart and the African Queen are we? The real story would have been if a fireman had said; "what, me wade into that to help save a baby? I'd get my waist wet. Oooh, no".

But my favourite story of "extraodinary human endeavour" was the Evesham postman who used his own car (not just anyone's car, mind you, his own car) because deliveries had been cancelled, to deliver Harry Potter.

It turns out (as separately reported in another article by the Telegraph but not mentioned in the tales of "extraordinary human endeavour" feature) that his own daughter had been eagerly waiting for the book in his same home village to which he delivered the books to the other children.

Imagine if he had got her book out of the depot and delivered to just her and not the others in this village? Hero to Villain and social pariah in his village (and probably P45 for an unauthorized delivery) in one go. Apparently he only delivered to his own village. There is no mention as to whether or not he left other villages waterlogged and Potterless.

Many celebrated English men and women were stoic. Admiral Nelson was stoic and clever (one gets the impression that there was not that much difference in animation between the real Admiral Nelson and his statue in Trafalgar Square). Scott of the Antarctic was stoic and stupid, though the former quality is more often remarked upon than the latter. Postman Yates of the Evesham sorting office in Worcestershire is (on the balance of cultural probabilities) almost certainly stoic, certainly enterprising, a good family man and socially aware - as were undoubtedly thousands of other people who were stoically making other enterprising and socially concerned decisions in the middle of this crisis. But to make all this into tales of "extraordinary human endeavour"? It's an insult to those stoic Londoners who lived through the Blitz and I am sure that all these mentioned in this Telegraph feature would agree - if they were not too reserved and uncommunicative to say so.