My father, brought up in Mussolini's Italy, has always been wary of heroes, maintaining that they are not necessary to a civilised society. In fact, they are positively dangerous: looking up to someone, he claims, inevitably leads to blindness.
He remembers how at his primary school he had to learn Il Duce's sayings by rote (his favourite was "it is better to die as a lion than to live as a sheep"); but at home he heard the same Glorious Leader being vehemently condemned at the dinner table. One person's hero, it seemed, could be another's villain.
Half of our entertainments, from Big Brother to the Cannes Film Festival, are designed to select the hero of the hour; many of our industries profit from coining and reproducing the heroic image around the globe.
History has shown that the collective hero-worship my father witnessed did make for disaster: Il Duce, like Adolf Hitler, could hold an audience spellbound, inspire the troops ... and make ordinary people do extraordinarily evil things. Yet today we have cast off all concern for the dark underside of the contemporary hero. Perhaps because they never had to deny their past idols as the Italians and Germans (and Russians) …