As we clap for Captain Tom, remember him for the hero he was

Mark My Words #6

Aeneas Bearing Anchises from Troy, by Carle van Loo, 1729 (Louvre).

Captain Sir Tom Moore—whose fundraising efforts raised an incredible £33 million for the effort against COVID-19—has died at the venerable age of 100. Though his legacy is undisputed—he is a war hero whose optimism and lust for life inspired the nation—the story nonetheless has an ambivalent resonance, not least because Captain Tom’s legacy will be manipulated by those who use patriotism and war rhetoric as a screen for their own failings.

Despite what the cabinet would have you believe, the campaign against COVID is not a war against an ‘invisible enemy’. I do not mean to knock Tom’s efforts by saying this. Quite the opposite, I believe his pursuit of life is best honoured by contrasting it with the cynicism and manoeuvrings of those in power who failed him. Whereas Captain Tom’s life demonstrates a commitment to a greater good, to pleasure, to a life-well lived, Boris has nothing but trite war metaphors to rely on. These came out in force at the outbreak of the pandemic, and they haven’t let up—though throughout it has been unclear whether our enemy was China, Europe, or biology itself.

Boris—who has a well-documented Churchill complex—particularly likes to activate these metaphors when his government’s under fire. Encouraging us to join in the clap for Tom Moore, tonight at 6 p.m., Boris likened his efforts to raise money for the NHS (an entity which, I might point out, it is his responsibility to fund) to his military service ‘in the dark days of the Second World War’. Already, Matt Hancock has announced the government’s plan to complete Captain Tom’s conversion into myth by erecting a statue in his honour, which further blurs the specific history of the pandemic by turning it into an historical myth.

Throughout the pandemic, Boris’s cheery, flag-waving projection of confidence has served largely to distract from his government’s lack of any coherent plan that could save lives. It stands in stark contrast to Captain Tom’s optimism, which was underwritten by his age-defying and relentless action. His legacy must not now be co-opted as a political symbol, and his mythologisation must not serve to transform a man-made crisis, marked by specific failings, into an inevitable episode from the great sweep of history.

Because if Captain Tom is a mythological figure, he is less the stalwart Agamemnon that Boris has painted him as, and much more the lesser-known Anchises, the sagacious Trojan who dedicated his waning years into pointing a new direction for his defeated countrymen. Unlike Agamemnon, Anchises never returned from battle to military pomp or the red-carpet. He left the nation he fought for in ruins and was undone by his leadership. He realised that the Trojans had charted the wrong course, and, though he was able to point the direction to the Italian shores, he died quietly during an outbreak of plague on the faraway island of Crete.

During this clap for carers, don’t be fooled by Boris’s latest attempt to exonerate his own failings by mythologising Captain Tom. Captain Tom’s story has a mythological resonance, to be sure, but this is because his heroism was not enough to mend the haemorrhages left by a younger generation—who often expended their energies posturing, braying, and fighting for naught. The most lasting image to be produced of Anchises depicts his son, the stalwart Aeneas, lifting heaven and earth to take his father safely away from the burning Troy. Though Captain Tom is worthy of the mantle of Anchises, Boris is hardly an Aeneas. Unlike Boris, Aeneas, as this beautiful painting shows, put the vulnerable on his back.