“The river of death has brimmed his banks And England’s far and Honour’s a name But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks ‘Play up! Play up! And play the game!’
Even as long ago as the first world war, men bitterly mocked the tritely jingo-istic sentiment of Sir Henry Newbolt’s poem ‘Vitaï Lampada’. So it wouldn’t remotely surprise me if it turned out that I was the last chap on earth who still finds it an inspiration.
Yes, I know all that G.A. Henty stuff is discredited Victorian imperialistic tosh, but I still think our bewhiskered forebears grasped a point lost in our spavined, milksop era of kimchi, sourdough bread and ‘plant-based’ diets: a man really isn’t a man until he has been tested in the crucible of battle.
Winston Churchill certainly thought so. What’s striking about his early years, I’m reminded by Andrew Roberts’s stirring, thorough and impish biography, is just how frantically desperate he was to get himself almost killed on any number of occasions. Before entering a career of public service, he’d clearly decided, a man needs to demonstrate beyond reasonable doubt that he is in possession of a pair of cast-iron testicles.
Gosh he must have been a bumptious, annoying little tick — the way, exploiting all his aristocratic and political connections, he continually insinuated himself on to military expeditions. Lord Kitchener didn’t want him on the belated punitive expedition to the Sudan to thrash the Mahdi for his temerity in having decapitated Chinese Gordon at Khartoum. But Young Winston wormed his way aboard nonetheless and, of course, got rewarded with a place in the last significant cavalry charge in British history.
Roberts makes clear that Churchill put himself seriously in the way of danger. Sure, Kitchener’s forces had machine guns against the natives’ rifles and spears, but they were outnumbered two to one, and nearly a quarter of those who took part in the cavalry charge were either killed or wounded. Afterwards Churchill found the bodies of 20 lancers ‘so hacked and mutilated as almost to have been unrecognisable’. This could so easily have been him.
One reason it wasn’t was because of the injuries he’d accumulated in earlier scrapes, which rendered him incapable of wielding a sword. Instead, he carried a ten-shot Mauser pistol with which he dispatched four dervishes, including one who had been on the verge of hamstringing Churchill’s ‘handy, surefooted, Arab grey pony’ with what would undoubtedly have been fatal consequences to the rider.
By the time he was 25, Churchill had — supposedly — ‘fought in more continents than any soldier in history save Napoleon and seen as many campaigns as any living general’. No doubt Churchill recognised that if one day you’re going to send men out to battle as a commander-in-chief, it helps if you’ve tasted what you’re about to put them through. Mainly, though, I suspect, he was doing it for more selfish reasons: to ‘see the elephant’, to get his kicks and prove to himself that he had what it takes.
I totally understand this ridiculous, suicidal attitude. It’s why I nearly killed myself in that hunting accident a few years back. I remember as I fast approached that hideous, trappy fence with the barbed wire, on my skittish and unsuitable mount, how totally ill-equipped I was to leap it with ease. But I forced myself to do it anyway because I felt it was the proper, manly thing to do: I preferred the prospect of horrible injury to risking the disdain of those fellow riders who were with me at that moment (even though, let’s be honest, none of them had a clue who I was or would have given a damn if I’d turned away and found an easier route).
Afterwards, at least for a few months, I felt satisfied that I had done my bit. I had acted like a brave little soldier and I had the scars (pinned collar bone, broken ribs, pulmonary embolism, hunting ban from unimpressed family) to prove it. But as anyone who suffers from semi-reluctant hero syndrome will know, this sense of achievement eventually wears off, to be replaced by the gnawing sense that something more yet needs to be done in order to earn one’s man points.
Over the years, I have done all manner of stupid things in order to frustrate my instinctive inner coward: diving with great white sharks, swimming across crocodile-infested rivers, racing round the Isle of Man TT course on Mad Sunday on a Honda Fireblade, communing with the Four Tray Crips during the LA riots, etc. Obviously I’m not suggesting that these are nearly in the same league as going to war or rescuing people from burning buildings or fighting off a machete-wielding thug with only a Taser. But I do think they have done just about enough to prevent me counting my manhood cheap when in the company of my bros.
Yes, I know it’s frivolous and a bit irresponsible, especially as you get older, to go on courting these daredevil experiences. But I’m still old-fashioned enough to believe that if you don’t test yourself now and again, then frankly you might as well hand in your man card. Do the kids of today understand this? Well some of them do: both my boys, who went through worryingly wimpy stages, are now at least as up for pulling near--suicidal man stunts as ever I was. Another cousin recently swam the Channel and has joined the Marines, so there may be hope for the next generation yet.
Times have changed; participation in war is not as inevitable as it once was. Still though, I believe it’s our job as men to do the right and noble thing, rescue damsels in distress and fight off bad guys. More importantly, most of our womenfolk still believe this too.