I’m slowly working through, and very much enjoying the BBC series Icons. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether it makes any sense to have a "final" in which "iconic" sportsmen, politicians and scientists go head to head, but that’s not the real issue. The big problem is that the series has wholly the wrong name, and should be called not Icons, but Heroes.
To qualify as a 20th Century icon, a person should be:
- Instantly recognisable, to a large proportion of people,
- Representative of some characteristic of the 20th Century,
- Usable in the abstract, perhaps through a caricature or a single word, to stand in for others and key concepts.
The simplest and least controversial example is probably Albert Einstein. Everyone knows that smiling face and wild hair. Through a series of seminal papers in 1905 and the following years he established not only relativity theory but also key elements of quantum theory, the two major planks which ensured that 20th Century Physics diverted strongly from the Victorian version. I can use the single word "Einstein" or draw a very crude cartoon of a smiling face with spiky hair and a bow tie, and it immediately invokes a range of concepts in the beholder.
Einstein was also a hero. He completed his early work despite a number of personal and academic setbacks. A Jew, he escaped Nazi Germany and helped the allies to defeat the axis powers, but then became a strong proponent of denuclearisation and peace. He qualifies both ways.
At the other end of the scale, consider Ernest Shackleton. Shackleton is undeniably, absolutely a hero. The story of the Endurance voyage, and how his leadership bought them all back safely despite horrendous tribulations bears endless retelling. Shackleton is certainly a personal hero to me: I have read books about him, watched programs, travelled to exhibitions. I managed to track down a copy of the wonderful dramatisation by Kenneth Branagh and we re-watched it just a few weeks ago.
But is Shackleton a 20th Century icon? How many people would recognise a picture of him out of context? I might struggle myself. Also in many ways he represents not 20th Century exploration, but the end of the Victorian era: plucky white men opening up the dark areas on the world’s map. There is a case for considering the Endurance story as a precursor to Apollo 13, that other great 20th Century tale of explorers rescued, but it’s not a strong one.
If you want an iconic 20th Century explorer, you really have to focus on aeronautics or the space race. There are many heroes, but the best chance for an icon is probably Neil Armstrong. We may not all instantly recognise his face, but that picture of a man in a spacesuit standing next to the American flag, or those words announcing "a giant leap for mankind" are certainly iconic, and representative of a type of exploration which didn’t exist before, and no longer really exists now.
In the political space, Winston Churchill is certainly an icon. His name and face, even in caricature, immediately invoke concepts such as strong leadership, freedom fighting tyranny, a blend of conservative and liberal ideals sadly lacking today. He is a clear exemplar of one side of 20th Century politics. His qualification as a hero is more nuanced: his amazing talent for being in the wrong place at the right time, his determination to do the right thing, his dominant skill as a leader, orator and writer all support it. However I acknowledge that his position on issues like Ireland and India, and his errors such as over Gallipoli and Singapore do at least slightly offset his great successes elsewhere. His icon is also capable of being misused, for example by those who view him as a symbol of British independence, who carefully ignore his post-war advocacy of unifying international institutions such as the UN and EU.
However, if you accept Churchill as a 20th Century political icon, you also have to consider another: Adolf Hitler. As an icon he qualifies without question. We instantly recognise his name and image, even if it’s just a simple cartoon of the hairstyle and moustache. He also stands as a clear exemplar of the other side of mid-20th Century politics, and a clear warning of the risks of allowing the rise of his like again. Icons do not have to be heroes. They can be villains.
A basic qualification for iconic status is that someone, or something must be famous, or infamous. However the BBC series has been so determined to not just parade a series of middle-aged white men that they have made some odd choices with the candidates. I enjoyed the story of Tu Youyou, the Chinese lady who discovered an important antimalarial drug, but can you honestly propose as a "20th Century Icon" someone whose individual identity was carefully suppressed until well into the 21st?
I have just sneaked a look at the results, and I see that neither of my prime examples of unquestioned icons (Einstein and Churchill) got through to the final. That doesn’t matter: I also consider both Turing and Mandela among my heroes, and I will still enjoy the rest of the episodes. However even if it risked being confused with that series about people with imaginary physical super-powers, rather than just real mental ones, I think the series should have been called simply Heroes.
I’ve been having a few problems with my RSS feed, hopefully now fixed. If you view my blog via the feed and don’t see a picture from my trip to the Kolmanskoppe diamond mining town, please let me know. Continue reading
I was really looking forward to The Favourite. It had a lot going for it. The period – the reign of Queen Anne, the end of the Stuart dynasty and the wars with Louis XIV – is an important piece Continue reading
Wednesday, January 2, 2019 in Thoughts on the World
Battery Replacement on a 2015 MacBook I realised a couple of weeks ago, much to my horror and chagrin, that I had been walking around with a potential incendiary bomb. Not that I had done anything wrong – this is Continue reading
Here’s my traditional end of trip contribution to the world of fine art photography. Peter Lik watch out! From the left: Alison, Yours Truly, Nigel, Keith, Paul, John L, John B, Ann, Lee Continue reading
Here are some facts ands figures about our trip, and some guidance for prospective travellers and photographers. Cameras and Shot Count I took around 2900 shots (broken down to 2788 on the Panasonic G9, 78 on the GX8, and a Continue reading
The last day of any trip is always a bit sad, and hard work with the travel. However this year three separate organisations covered themselves in something which is not glory, and I have to get this out of my Continue reading
Well, a line, anyway. We’ll all be back over the line sometime tomorrow, when we fly back. That’s sad. From the left: Lee (group leader and owner of Photo Adventures), Ann, John B, Paul, Alison, Keith, Nigel, Tuhafenny (our excellent Continue reading
Wednesday, November 28, 2018 in Namibia Travel Blog
I noticed while gathering for the bushman walk that five of our group were "packing" a pair of Canons. This shot was inevitable. Thanks to John B for the title – excellent photographer’s joke. I am happy to explain if Continue reading
Having been out until gone 11pm doing the night photography, I boycotted the dawn shoot back in the quiver tree forest, had a bit of a lie in, and joined the party at breakfast. We then moved off north. On Continue reading
Sadly we’re into the last few days of the trip and have to spend most of the next few days hacking back from the extreme south west of Namibia to Windhoek which is well to the north. Monday started with Continue reading
Today we visited two ghost towns based around diamond mines. In the morning we visited Elizabeth Bay, which is about half an hour from Lüderitz behind a substantial security screen as it shares its location and access road with an Continue reading
Monday, November 26, 2018 in Namibia Travel Blog
Sorry it’s a bit fuzzy and not properly focused, but that’s nothing to do with my photography! Continue reading
Lee agreed that we could all have a lie-in, so of course I woke up at 4, and was just getting back to sleep at 6 when the sun rose over the mountains and shone straight into my room. Bugger… Continue reading
Saturday, November 24, 2018 in Namibia Travel Blog
We’ve been a bit spoiled by the game drives at Okonjima, where it was almost a challenge not to see a great variety of game. The Wolwedans equivalent was less productive: after 4 hours in the jeeps under a blazing Continue reading
There’s a long-running joke between Frances and myself that I like to use a dead tree as foreground interest in my photos. In Namibia, it’s often the only viable target, and I’ve found that I’m in very good company. We Continue reading
My cunning plan to have a lie-in worked, and I had a great night’s sleep, sorted myself out, and had a leisurely breakfast. Those who had chosen the "third 4.15 start in a row" option got back looking distinctly frazzled. Continue reading
Deadvlei is the home of the iconic Namibian desert image: a dead tree on a salt plain with an orange dune in the background. Despite the ubiquity of such images, in practice it’s a single relatively small location, a bowl Continue reading
Thursday, November 22, 2018 in Namibia Travel Blog
Up at 4.14, but in a very worth cause, our helicopter flight over the Namibian dunes. We had to take it in turns, as the company only have one helicopter with three passenger seats flying at this time of year, Continue reading
Playlist for today: On The Road Again : Canned Heat Highway Star : Deep Purple Bright Side of the Road : Van Morrison Call Me The Breeze (I keep blowin’ down the road) : Lynyrd Skynyrd Goin’ Down The Road Continue reading
Tuesday, November 20, 2018 in Namibia Travel Blog
Despite the distractions of the chalet’s canvas roof I eventually got an OK night’s sleep, and woke up ready for action. With the sun just rising we had a great pre-breakfast shoot at Spitzkoppe, with the rock formations beautifully lit Continue reading
5am call, quick cup of coffee and back in the big FWD for "leopard tracking". This was a dawn game drive with a tracker for the radio collars fitted to the park’s other leopards. On the way we stopped to Continue reading
Sunday, November 18, 2018 in Namibia Travel Blog
It’s looking like we will spend a lot of time on the road. Once our transport arrived on day 3 we drove back out to the airport to collect the final member of the group, then back past our hotel Continue reading
I’m off on my photographic travels again, this time to Namibia. I’m travelling with Lee Frost of Photo Adventures, as I did to Cuba and Morocco, and it promises to be an interesting mix of landscape, wildlife and general travel Continue reading
Banks constantly tell us to do more to protect our financial details against online fraud, but we live in a world where there is often no alternative to exposing important financial information to potential misuse. The frustration is that there Continue reading
Thursday, August 30, 2018 in Thoughts on the World
Is the theatre its own worst enemy? Is it the engine of its own destruction? Let me explain what I mean. We love the cinema. We go most weeks, and most weeks we come away feeling well entertained, even inspired. Continue reading
Tuesday, August 28, 2018 in Thoughts on the World
There is an old plot device, which goes back to at least Homer, although the version which popped into my head this evening was Genesis of the Daleks, a 1970s Dr Who story. A group of warriors fight a short Continue reading
Thursday, July 26, 2018 in Android
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