This time last year we’d never heard of Captain Tom. We’d barely registered the incoming threat from COVID-19. It was still something that was happening somewhere else. And Captain Tom Moore was a ninety-nine-year-old widower living with his daughter and her family in a quiet village in rural Bedfordshire. He was looking forward to a bit of a fuss being made of him on his hundredth birthday and to recovering some of the independence he’d ceded after a fall.
Scrolling through the pages of a diary recording the first two and a half months of last year now has a surreal feel to it. I was seeing authors and agents, meeting friends for drinks and planning holidays. But COVID was coming to turn our lives upside down. And Captain Tom was about to become perhaps the most famous and celebrated man in the country.
A walk around the garden, intended to exercise the leg he damaged in his fall, was encouraged by sponsorship from his family. Word spread. And spread. And soon took on a life of its own. When, as the first COVID lockdown bit, we felt anxious, uncertain and frightened, Captain Tom gave us something to believe in. Modest, stoic, determined, down-to-earth and always ready with a smile, Tom reminded us of who we were, how we wanted to be, and how we wanted to be seen. Tom embodied a kind of Britishness that, as we faced a threat to our lives, loves and livelihoods the like of which most of us had never experienced, felt as if it was what could see us through.
And always he was at pains to remind us that the real heroes were those on the NHS frontline. The £32 million he raised for NHS charities earned him a place in The Guinness Book of World Records. A fundraising single reached No.1 in the charts. He was knighted by the Queen. Tom packed more into the last year of his life than most of us manage in a lifetime. His year in the public eye could not have been more at odds with the life he’d led beforehand, but his autobiography, Tomorrow Will Be A Good Day, showed us that the qualities that saw Tom inspire the country he loved had been there all along. When Tom put his faith in Penguin Michael Joseph to publish his book in May last year, he told us he’d ‘better get writing!’ And, true to form, he over-delivered in this in the same way he had with his walk and his fundraising. Tomorrow Will Be A Good Day was a No.1 bestseller. It broke more records and, more importantly, shared the wit, warmth and wisdom of a long life, well-lived.
In the end, Captain Tom gave his all to the battle against COVID. In his later years, the friends Tom lost during the Second World War were never far from his thoughts. As young men they made the ultimate sacrifice in a righteous fight for freedom. Since then, the whole country has held tight to their memory and example. They represented the best of us. It seems like no coincidence that, when we needed it most, we should have turned once again to one of the last surviving veterans of that titanic struggle – a member of our Greatest Generation – to inspire us.
His last battle against a fearsome enemy was no less heroic than his first. Captain Tom, we salute you. It was our honour and privilege to be your publisher.