When I was young, I was taught the stories of the founding myths and heroes of my country. The implication was that I should somehow emulate them, admire them and use them as role models. Most of them were violent men of empire, like Francis Drake, Wolfe of Quebec, the Duke of Wellington, Horatio Nelson, Gordon of Khartoum, and Clive of India.
They were male, white and all of them killed people for a living. There were only two women: Boudicca, who we then knew as Boadicea, and who was also a violent military leader, and Florence Nightingale, who did her work in a war. Boudicca was presented without the blood-letting and destruction of Romano-British towns, and the Florence Nightingale story made no mention of her black colleague, Mary Seacole.
As I grew older, slightly less violent heroes were offered to me, like Robin Hood, Henry V, Scott of the Antarctic, Winston Churchill, Dr Livingstone and Captain Cook.
Still men, still white, still mostly military.
For the children of a country that was trying to repair the horrendous financial, physical, and emotional damage of the Second World War, I suppose it was important for us to be inculcated in a misplaced pride in an empire that no longer existed, but the myths really needed to be re-written for the modern world.
We needed new heroes. Women as well as men, people from cultures other than white Anglo-Saxon. We needed people of peace. We still do.
I think it’s still important to know the stories, but also to know the new ones and the international heroes, like Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. While it may still be important to know of the existence of Alfred the Great, it is also important to know more about him than that he was a rubbish baker of bread.
And the women? What about the women? The mothers and wives, of course, but also the Suffragettes, the trade unionists, the teachers, the doctors, the politicians? Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Besant and Indira Gandhi.
The world was, and is, full of great men and women, still able to be role models, if we only look beyond our nation state and beyond our own obsessive fears and blinkered philosophies.