I suspect we all admire the qualities we lack. I admire courage. Because I have none, I thrill to it in others, and I cleave to people who display it.
Hemingway defined courage as grace under pressure. He may be right. But I've just read the Earl of Rochester on the subject. Rochester was a poet who died of syphilis in 1680 at the age of 33. Three centuries later he's made me think.
But before we get to the poxy earl, imagine this. You are standing in a paddock. Twenty yards away, and pointing at you, is a cannon. It is loaded with a solid ball about three inches in diameter. When the cannon goes off, the ball will reach you in less than half a second, which is just enough time for you to glimpse it and react. If the cannon ball hits you, it will hurt you. If it hits you on the head it may kill you.
The cannon goes off. The ball is heading your way. What do you do? Well, instinct tells you to step out of its path. Prudence tells you the same thing. So you step out of its path. Problem solved.
This week, a man did exactly that and there was uproar. The man in question was a New Zealand batsman. And the cannon in question was Dale Steyn. Steyn, a South African, is currently the best and fastest bowler in the world.
As the ball approached, 5 1/2 ounces in weight, hard enough to shatter bone and travelling at 90 miles an hour, the batsman committed a crime against cricket. His moral duty was to stay in line with the ball and do his best to fend it off. If it hit him, it hit him.
But he stepped away. He fled to leg. Somehow the ball missed both him and the stumps. The camera zoomed in on his eyes. They were as wide as saucers. The poor bugger was terrified. And the commentators, in their air- conditioned box with its padded chairs and its plates of sandwiches, chuckled.
Others didn't chuckle. "He should be strung up in public and flogged," said an elderly cricket enthusiast I know. "The man's a disgrace to the nation."
He wasn't joking. In the eyes of the elderly gentleman, the batsman had shown cowardice in the face of the enemy. It was an unforgivable offence.
In an All Blacks test perhaps 15 years ago, and I think it was against France, Jonah Lomu scored a try. He received the ball only a few yards from the line and he was travelling at speed.
As you may recall, Lomu was a substantial chap. He was not going to be stopped. Only one opponent was in a position to slow him down a bit. He weighed it up and decided not to bother. Lomu was going to score whether he flung himself in front of him or not. So he stepped aside and waved Jonah through like a traffic cop.
The reaction of the crowd was similar to the cricket commentators. They hooted with delight. They knew exactly what they'd seen. They recognised the truth of fear. Truth makes people laugh.
Fear is an instinct and a useful one. It warns us of danger. Fortune may favour the brave but evolution favours the fearful. The truly fearless, if such people exist, are unlikely to live long.
Nor can they be called courageous. Courage without fear is not courage. It is merely recklessness, bad judgment. Courage, by general consent, means feeling the bowel loosen, but still choosing to do the brave thing.
"The important thing when you're going to do something brave," said Michael Howard, "is to have someone on hand to witness it."
Both the rugby player and the batsman inverted that advice. They did something unbrave before an audience of millions. You could argue that both men made a rational decision. There was nothing to be gained from their acting brave. But they stand convicted of cowardice.
Had I been in the position of the French defender I'd have had a go at Lomu. I would not have wanted to, of course, and those enormous thighs, like quart bottles of brown ale, would have biffed me aside. But what would have induced me to make the pointless tackle would not have have been courage. It would have been fear of being seen to be the coward that I am.
Which brings me at last to the poxy Rochester. "All men would be cowards if they durst," he said.
- The Press