About twice a week I travel to Edinburgh by train. By the time I catch it it’s halfway through its journey from Inverness, which means I can’t always get a forward- facing table. But I’ve become adept at guessing who’s going to get out in Perth, the next stop, twenty minutes down the line. In fact it’s become something of a game I play with myself.
There are certain types – male and female, besuited, laptop and lots of paperwork, alternatively outdoor wear, laptop and equally copious reading matter – who I suspect work for Highland Council or the Scottish Government or one of the environmental agencies, and who are down for a day’s meetings in Perth. So I sit opposite them and pounce as soon as they’ve vacated their seats. I get it right more often than not.
Today I took a later train and it was busy. I found a table seat, backwards-facing, opposite a young woman who was none of the above, and who I reckoned was going all the way to Edinburgh. She had a settled-in look and was writing something on her laptop that obviously involved a lot of thought and frequent referral to what looked like a festival programme. Then I noticed the printed cotton carrier bag from the St Magnus International Festival, Orkney’s big midsummer music festival.
I thought she might be a journalist and in due course asked her if she was reviewing the festival. ‘In a manner of speaking,’ she replied. Being nosy, I persisted and she told me that she works for Creative Scotland as a development officer and was writing up her visit to Orkney.
We continued talking and eventually I learned that she had been brought up in South Africa, to which she was shortly due to return for only the second time since leaving, a decade ago. Having been to South Africa myself twice, both times during the apartheid era, I’m always interested to hear from people who know the country today – especially anyone who, like her, lived through the transition period. She described it as one of great excitement and hope for a future which, in many ways, has not come to pass.
Inevitably, we ended up discussing the likelihood that Nelson Mandela would be dead by the time she gets back there. What will happen then, I asked? It’s not as if he’s in charge any longer, yet people are clearly fearful. It’s because of his moral authority, she answered, the way he continues to symbolise the possibility of goodness in a country which in the last few years has been drifting deeper into corruption and criminality. Her unspoken conclusion was: once the symbol’s no longer there what is there to hold back those degenerate forces?
We need such symbols. Churchill – rightly or wrongly – was the towering figure when I was young. I remember standing to attention in my CCF uniform on Radley station platform in 1965 as his funeral train passed through on its way to Oxfordshire and Bladon, where he was buried. A great man had died, we were told later in chapel, and the world would never be quite the same again. Like Mandela, he was no longer in charge but his passing signified a shift in the order of things.
In a very real sense, these heroes are essential. The stories we tell ourselves about our lives and the society we belong to, the world we live in, are that much harder to live by if they are populated only by villains, or perhaps worse still, mediocrities. Just as we’re hard-wired for stories, so we’re hard-wired for heroes. But – and here we’re probably getting what we deserve – they do seem to be in worryingly short supply these days. Or perhaps we need to be looking for them in different places…