Friday, February 17, 2012

The New Elizabethans

During a long, dull drive to Mortlake Crematorium yesterday, I listened to a podcast of Radio Four's excellent Start the Week, in which Andrew Marr and his guests discussed a quest to find 60 'New Elizabethans'.

I'll let this extract from the Radio Four website explain things further:

"To mark the Diamond Jubilee, James Naughtie will be profiling the 60 public figures who have made the greatest impact in these islands during The Queen's reign - men and women who have defined the era and whose deeds will stand the test of time.

But who are the great achievers of the past six decades? Who will stamp their names in the history books just as Shakespeare, Drake and Raleigh did before them? Who will be remembered down the years for changing the way we live and think, for entertaining and amazing us?

We'd like your help to find The New Elizabethans. They can come from any walk of life. Their impact must have been on these islands between 1952 and the present day but that doesn't necessarily mean they have to be British.

You can suggest your New Elizabethans up to 5pm on March 9th 2012. All the names put forward will be passed to our panel of leading historians who will debate and decide on the final list of 60. Radio 4 will broadcast profiles of each of the chosen New Elizabethans during the summer this year."

I know that polls like these are a lot of nonsense, but I can't resist the allure of lists.

It's a relief to see that Radio Four aren't putting it to a popular vote (although I trust their listeners more than most people). Let's leave it to the experts. Democracy may work in the polling booth, but it's a lousy arbiter of quality.

However, the criteria are a little confusing.

The extract above includes anyone who has influenced British culture during the last 60 years, irrespective of nationality. But another Radio Four web page suggests that it should simply be a list of 'Great Britons'.

To confuse things further, what do we mean by 'Britons'? In 1953, citizens of Australia, New Zealand and Canada were widely regarded as de facto Britons, which is why Edmund Hillary's conquest of Everest was regarded as a British achievement. Where do we draw the line?

Driving home along the M25, I had a long time to think about this and started to come up with some names. I decided to limit my selection to individuals who were either born in Britain or have lived here for a number of years, as an international list would be far too difficult to narrow down to 60 people (mine would have to include figures as diverse as Elvis Presley, Bill Gates, Mikhail Gorbachev, the person who invented the Sony Walkman, Aaron Spelling, Milton Friedman and President Kennedy).

If I'd had more time, the list might have been very different. But for the moment these are the people who, for better or worse, seem to capture the spirit of the age: