In April, in deepest pandemic, Captain Tom Moore, a war veteran, then 99 — almost a centenary in himself, a monument — decided to raise money for NHS Charities Together, an organisation that collectively gives the NHS about £1 million a day.
He swiftly became a strange thing: the darling of the pandemic. He walked around his garden on his Zimmer frame for sponsorship, ten laps of 25 metres a day. Captain Moore’s behaviour was exemplary, of course; but the response to him was more telling about the modern British condition.
He reached £1,000; then £10,000; then £32 million and, as he walked, he was sanctified. He sang You’ll Never Walk Alone with Michael Ball, and got to No.1. He wrote an autobiography. Artists painted him. His portrait is now in the National Army Museum. He got a nickname: Captain Tom. The Queen emerged from lockdown to knight him, saint to saint.
He was made a colonel. He was granted a gold Blue Peter badge. He became a postmark. Keighley Town Council granted him the freedom of Keighley. A train, a bus, a puppy, two horses and a garden were named for him. A guard of honour from the 1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment watched over him as he finished his walk.
On his 100th birthday, planes of the Royal Air Force flew past his house. He received 140,000 birthday cards and two Guinness World Records. Now a film will be made of his life from the people who made Fishermen’s Friends, an account of how some shanty-singing fishermen won a million-pound record deal. It will be an addition to a peculiarly British genre: the doughty British, and their heart-warming and improbable success against the odds. A record contract and £32.8 million for the NHS? What more could you want?
I wonder, though, if the tale of Tom Moore, though superficially heart-warming and improbable, has more to do with failure than success: not the failure of a man — he is an exceptional man — but of a state. A functioning state does not need a Tom Moore, and yet the response to him shows we need him badly; we fell on him like cake in a time of agony. But philanthropy, however imaginative and freely given, is not justice or a functioning society: quite the opposite. The existence of the charity is, rather, evidence of the need; and the need is the important thing. If we only emphasise the charity — and you will read far more on the charity than the need from an often gormless British press — are we willing ourselves into blindness, with only Captain Tom to see for us?
Is there a connection between our response to Moore and the appalling mishandling of the pandemic and our seeming tolerance for it: something nostalgic — he fought in the war — sentimental — he fought in the war? — and childlike in its guilelessness? I think there is. I thought the same thing about the national clapping for the NHS. (It exposed something ugly too, towards those who do not wish to clap for the NHS and there are many who do not. But it was considered a societal duty nonetheless.)
There were rainbows too, for the NHS in pandemic: a flurry of rainbows. Rainbows are fine but, in the end, they are only rainbows. We like to imagine there is something wonderful beyond them but what, really, is over the rainbow? A recession? A depression? Collapsing public services? And, as we made our rainbows, did we really see all the colours — or just the ones we sought? Healthcare workers don’t need rainbows. Rainbows are painted by children. Health and social care workers needed effective PPE, and often they didn’t get it. The British Medical Association called it, “a national scandal”. Too often they died: the most recent figure is 650 deaths, the third largest in the world. The Doctors’ Association UK asked for a public inquiry. They didn’t get one.
I understand the need for celebration in pain. It is normal. I also understand why the Queen wanted to meet Tom Moore, for she would surely recognise him as something close to herself: an ordinary person onto which we project all our hope so that, in our hope, we can cease thinking.
But does it soothe us from the knowledge that we have the highest number of Covid-19-related deaths in Europe — and a broken, narcissistic Prime Minister — or distract us? I would ask the same question of the Government’s response to the pandemic, which has been, by turns, chaotic, idiotic and corrupt. I want to hear anger: useful and forensic anger. But I don’t. I hear, instead, the insistent thrumming of an old man made into a god.
There is much to be angry about. Those in persistent poverty were most than twice as likely as the affluent to die from Covid-19; feminism walked backwards into the home as women lost their jobs first and picked up the children first; the attainment gap in education widened grievously. In the future, the fall-out from pandemic will turn entrenched inequalities into an abyss; we will see poverty like we have not seen for decades. And the rich, well, they are sleeping, not dead. Our polity may fracture – for who will believe in it?
And so, there is something despairing about the cult of Tom Moore. It feels unserious, and infantile, another step on a road to a place we should not wish to go: a sort of intellectual torpor to sink into as we ignore our real condition. And what comes now, in the age of salvation-by-individual-heroism? Will we Bake-Off for the NHS? Let Comic Relief fund pensions? Have a lottery for a council house? Are we citizens or heroes? Increasingly we are neither, though I expect bunting amidst the ruins.