They say you can tell a lot about a person by the questions he or she asks. I think that also applies to a community.
Two weeks ago, newspaper headlines screamed, ‘Who Is the Stig?’ Some saw him as a modern-day Scarlet Pimpernel; a knight in white armour whose identity would never be revealed. Yet suddenly Top Gear’s very own Lone Ranger was about to be unmasked.
In a week when we learned that 33 miners were trapped underground in Chile, it will have seemed frivolous to some that we should make such a fuss about a man who drives fast cars around in circles on TV.
Yet the story tells us something important about our society and what we value.
In an age of rampant celebrity culture, there's something attractive to us about a man who signs on to join a global television phenomenon and yet remain anonymous.
In a book to be released this week, the driver, aka Ben Collins, will finally cash in on his character’s popularity. But that’s only after seven years of hiding his light under the proverbial bushel.
Jeremy Clarkson has said that he’s not sure what the Top Gear programme will do with the Stig character now. Perhaps they’ll turn him into another celebrity vehicle, with a different celeb suiting up as the Stig every week. The segment might become "Celebrity in a Reasonably Priced Helmet".
When you think about it, some of our greatest heroes, real and imagined, have always been shrinking violets.
Watching Batman or Spiderman as kids, our greatest fear was not that the hero would be killed; the great fear was that he would be unmasked. As with the Stig, anonymity was part of the character’s appeal and their greatness.
I mentioned ‘celebrity culture’, but of course celebrity is more of an industry today. We have global fame factories that are devoted to turning relatively unexceptional people into magazine covers, overnight.
Celebrity in itself is nothing new. Mozart and Beethoven were both celebrities in their time, as was Michelangelo. Back then – and not that long ago – celebrities were people society celebrated for a great achievement, or for some extraordinary talent revealed over a long period of time.
Today, celebrity often means little more than being well known for being well-known.
Many celebrities are famous simply because someone has found the right image for them, packaging them in a saleable way. When we think of the person we think of the image and vice versa.
I’ve spent the last two days in Newport, in the south of Wales. I was keynote speaker at two events that discussed the future of the city and region, and celebrated the local people who are already shaping that future.
This is an area of real need. In a few weeks time, Newport will host the Ryder Cup, one of the world’s most prestigious golfing tournaments.
Most of the golfers and spectators will see little of the poverty and hopelessness that are a feature of life for many of the long-term locals in this post-industrial centre.
A respected global housing survey last year ranked Newport as one of the UK’s nineteen ‘severely unaffordable’ cities, because the mean mortgage greatly outstrips the mean income.
Twelve percent of the city’s 16 to 18 year-olds are not in employment, education or training and unemployment for those aged under 25 sits at ten percent. Meanwhile, 25% of 19 year-olds lack the NVQ2 level of education – the second level on a scale of five, and one which relates to quite basic skills.
At the same time, though, inspiring stories are emerging about people who’re trying to reshape the future of their city – often with little or no official support or government funding.
These people, whom we celebrated at the Newport ‘Night of Honour’ event, are motivated by a strong civic spirit and simple human compassion.
There’s the elderly woman who annually collects a truckload of goods and travels with them to the former Eastern bloc, where they’re distributed to orphans. And the seven year-old boy who suffered from cancer, but now helps other children to understand what the word means.
As I sat listening to the stories of those who were honoured with awards, one thing became increasingly clear. You don't need to be a celebrity to lead a celebrated life.
Most of that evening’s honourees will never appear on the cover of a glossy magazine, or have paparazzi chasing them down the main streets of their city.
Yet like so many other individuals and charitable groups across the UK, these people are worthy of honour because they don’t need or ask to be placed on a pedestal before they spring into action.
Like the ‘few’ lauded in Churchill’s famous Battle of Britain speech, these are the unheralded heroes to whom so many will owe so much.
If British society is to deal with problems like institutional poverty, youth alcoholism and falling school standards in many areas, it is this unofficial activism that will need to come to the fore.
During my visit to Newport, I was asked by one of the city’s civic leaders about what impact the widespread use of terms like ‘ASBO’ has on the psyche of young people.
Anti-social behaviour orders were introduced by the former government in an attempt to reduce the high levels of youth offending in some towns – and the levels of fear they produced.
In the end, though, the ‘ASBO’ tag itself – like its bedfellow ‘hoodie’ – often served to further stigmatize already marginalized young people in needy areas.
The problem was not with the idea of non-custodial penalties for trouble-makers; it was the politicization of the acronym ‘ASBO’. The term was bandied about by sound byte-hungry politicos as a simplistic, catchall response to what was often a diverse range of family and youth problems.
This type of thing will continue for as long as we insist on looking to politicians for all the answers to community problems.
If we continue to believe, as many seem to do now, that the solutions to social ills will all be political in nature, we’re going to be disappointed time and again.
In one sense Mrs. Thatcher’s oft-quoted missive, ‘There is no such thing as society’, may hold an element of truth.
Many of society’s most pressing social problems will be addressed not by expensive government initiatives, bureaucratic targets, but by more ground-level action, closer to home.
The role of government cannot be denied but in many situations, lasting solutions on the ground will be found only as we each learn to say, ‘I am society’.
In an age of increasing digital disconnection, where it is often easier to make friends via Facebook than face-to-face, we will need to re-establish our connection to and responsibility for the physical community around us.
We’ve just paused once again to remember the events of 9/11 and to commemorate the almost three thousand people whose lives were so viciously cut short that day.
When the world marks the anniversary of 9/11, it remembers not just human terrorism, but breathtaking human heroism.
Passengers aboard United Flight Flight 93 forced hijackers to crash their plane in a field, before it could reach its intended Washington target.
Meanwhile, New Yorkers ran to escape the billowing dust cloud that spread like a sickly grey phantom as the first of the Twin Towers crashed to the ground. Yet firemen selflessly strapped on their oxygen masks and tanks and marched back into the gloom, to rescue men and women whose faces they’d never seen and whose names they did not know.
As we retell the stories of these quiet heroes, we remind ourselves of the potential that lies within each of us to shape the future more than it shapes us. And we recall again that one does not have to achieve celebrity status to lead a celebrated life.
Racing car drivers in white suits can’t compare on the hero scales alongside heroes like those of the Battle of Britain or 9/11. But in our time, a character like the Stig reminds us of the power of an anonymous person who has the commitment and courage to get involved.
For his part, the Stig will never again be the anonymous ‘hero’ that he once was. But Britain still needs hundreds, thousands of Stigs; ordinary men and women who will each, in their own quiet way, become knights in shining armour.
In the face of its post-recession rebuilding, Britain needs people who’ll hear the call ‘Who is the Stig?’, raise their hands in the air and respond, ‘I am!’