Still, I think that taken as whole the men of our fathers’ generation, by which I mean men born in the first quarter of the last century, were better people than we have been, or perhaps have needed to be. The American TV journalist Tom Brokaw coined the phrase “the Greatest Generation” to describe the men and women who had grown up in the 1930s depression, fought in the second world war or served the military effort at home, and in the years after victory, turned the US into a superpower. Of course, the phrase is absurd even when confined to the prism that is America’s view of itself: who’s to be the judge? But its appeal becomes difficult to resist even in a British context whenever an old pilot, soldier or seaman appears on television; most recently the survivors of Arctic and Atlantic convoys. Their matter-of-fact stoicism seems incredible. As Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote recently in a review of a memoir by Churchill’s daughter, Lady Soames, in which she recounts her days with the women’s army corps: ‘Sentimentality about “the greatest generation” is a besetting temptation. But damn it all, they were wonderful, and we who came after have not lived up to them.’
But this isn’t just about the war. Those of us born into the old working class also tend to venerate our parents for their self-denial and decency, and also because that way of life, being dead, is more easily simplified and honoured. Sir Alex Ferguson is perhaps the most extreme example of what might be called working-class ancestor worship. Few of us would name our houses after our father’s workplace or a racehorse, supposing we owned one, after an artefact that our father’s workplace had built – but the Ferguson mansion in Cheshire is called Fairfields, after the Glasgow shipyard, and his horse Queensland Star after a cargo liner that Fairfield’s launched for the Australia trade in 1957.