Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Let us now praise famous men

When you get to my age you start taking an interest in the obituary pages that would have been pointless when you were 25. Politicians one vaguely remembers, probably more for their failures or misdeeds than any lasting achievements, sportsmen from the days when there were still genuine amateurs and footballers were actually underpaid, and lately a fascinating and humbling collection of war veterans who survived exploits that would these days have their commanders court-martialled for inadequate risk assessment. The other day the Times featured one from the near extinct category of British industrial giants who rose from apprentice to senior rank and made a significant contribution to our manufacturing industry.

Harry Webster was technical director of Standard Triumph when it produced its best cars, now nearly all classics. My son has one, a 1974 TR6 that I am sometimes allowed to drive, though the first time he let me go solo he had left the tank empty and it would only go downhill. The cars pioneered all-independent suspension and fuel injection, at least on reasonably priced cars, and are kept going in enthusiasts’ clubs all over the world. His CBE would be given for a lot less today.

Next day it transpired that Webster, whose wife and daughter predeceased him, had been found dead at the foot of the stairs in his own house, where, at the age of 89, he presumably lived alone. I was deeply saddened. I would not go so far as to liken him to an artist who died penniless and whose pictures now fetch millions but it did set me thinking on the modern nature of fame and its relation to worth.

It seems we don’t really have fame nowadays. We have infamy and we have celebrity. Infamy goes with things like murdering a hundred-plus elderly women and issuing false death certificates or being a politician caught once too often with your trousers down. Celebrity can go with almost anything, from running a vicious criminal empire to having large breasts to flaunting a minority sexual preference for public entertainment to mere exhibitionism or even simple rudeness to those not in a position to respond. Those famous for their industrial or commercial careers are respected more for what they have done for themselves or their shareholders than for their customers or posterity. Harry Webster, justly respected in the widespread and lasting affection for and appreciation of his cars, was one of the old sort, a spiritual descendant of Brunel and Telford.

The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will show forth their praise.

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