The sorry state of these latter-day icons

An alarming insight into the minds of the people of Warwick has been provided by the psychology department of the town’s university. A study into British attitudes to character, published in the magazine Personality and Individual Differences, interviewed 17,056 adults, 40 per cent of whom were graduates, and a third of whom were managers or professionals.

Given a list of 24 virtues and asked which one they most aspired to, the majority of men chose open-mindedness, followed by fairness, curiosity and a love of learning. Women were rather keener on kindness and love. But it was when participants were asked which public figures best represented each quality that the survey became distinctly odd.

As symbols of open-mindedness, the men chose Sir Trevor McDonald and Sir Winston Churchill. For women, kindness was best embodied by another unlikely couple, Florence Nightingale and Esther Rantzen. A love of learning? Obviously that would be Sir Richard Branson for men and Carol Vorderman for women. Creativity? Andrew Lloyd Webber.

It is tempting to conclude that, finding themselves involved in yet another rather silly survey, the men and women of Warwick were having a bit of a laugh, but it is so unusual for 17,000 people to share the same joke that one has, reluctantly, to assume that they were serious.

Yet, almost accidentally, the Warwick University study of Britishness has revealed something rather significant. Something happens to people when they become well-known. A new persona begins to envelop them and quite soon this fictional, public version of themself replaces the real one. Famous people are not simply rendered more interesting, appealing or tragic – a better story – by the process of fame. They become symbols of good and evil, exemplars of how to live your life.

It matters not one jot, in this context, that Richard Branson could represent almost anything except a love of learning – he left school at 16, has devoted himself to money and fun since then and, apart from accepting a honorary doctorate for technology from the University of Loughborough and putting his name to a book called Screw It, Let’s Do It, has shown little interest in scholarship or the arts. Esther Rantzen may indeed be a kind person but, unless you are personal friend, the only evidence you have is her grinning public persona. Churchill had many strengths, but open-mindedness was not one of them.

Because fame provides its own halo (or horns), the public version of these people offers the same sort of moral compass as saints do within Christianity. People look at Sir Trevor McDonald and in those bland, amiable, empty features, they see what they want to see – reasonableness, balance, intelligence, integrity, open-mindedness. It is as pointless to ask whether the great newsreader possesses any of these virtues as it is to question whether Saint Christopher once really carried the infant Jesus across a river.

That much over-used adjective “iconic” turns out to be surprisingly appropriate. These celebrity saints, whose own personality has disappeared within a bloated fiction imposed on them by the public, are playing a quasi-religious role in the lives of millions. It is probably not much fun being at the centre of this madness and, for the worshippers, can only end in disappointment.

Significantly, there was agreement among the men and women who took part in the Warwick University survey about which of the virtues offered to them was the least important. It was spirituality.

Tribute for a master of wordplay

Red Nose Day approaches, but for many people the most worthy cause of the moment will not involve actors being zany, newsreaders wearing tights or Sir Terry Wogan earning his annual red-nose wad. There is a plan to built a statue of the great Les Dawson at Lytham St Anne’s.

For all his jokes about the mother-in-law, there was something timeless in Dawson’s humour. A genuinely nice man, he always wanted to be taken seriously for his novels, which were never quite as good as they should have been. Some of that love of language found its way into his brilliant monologues. The sculptor of the proposed statue has said he hopes to capture Les the comedian, the pianist, the family man. Let us hope he finds room for a hint of Les the novelist, the lover of words, too.

* Simultaneously embarrassing and compelling, that great televised event, Crufts Dog Show, starts this week. Watching it for the first time as a dog-owner, I shall appreciate the various subtexts of taste and class that bubble just below the surface whenever dogs and humans are to be found together.

Perhaps it is because when dogs impose themselves on human situations, they seem to bring out the snobbery in their owners. There is the disdain – idiotic, in the view of all sensible people – of the purebred for the mongrel. Owners of large dogs are startlingly sneery towards those of us with a smaller, more subtle animal. The etiquette of other people’s dogs is watched with a disapproving eye. In the canine world, everyone is Lady Bracknell. But, of all the snobberies, the greatest of all is that of the cat-lover towards dog ownership. For these superior people, there is only one word for the whole ridiculous, yappy, slavering, waggy business: vulgar.