Reputation is a brittle thing. Roger Casement (below) is a good example as is King Canute.

King Canute gets a bad press. He is held up as the epitome of foolish megalomania for trying to prove that he was so powerful that he could hold back the tide. He was actually showing up the sycophancy of his courtiers by demonstrating precisely the opposite.

Reputation can turn on a small action or phrase that was taken out of context, either maliciously, by chance or in the words of a chronicler whose version gains its own immortality. John Major’s reputation never recovered from the assassination by Alastair Campbell when he suggested that Major tucked his shirt into grey Y-fronts. Peter Morrison, Energy Minister under Thatcher and her campaign manager when she was fighting for her political life, will only ever be remembered for the story told by Alan Clark of him peering through the keyhole of Morrison’s office to see him asleep with his feet on the desk – a metaphor for all that was wrong with Thatcher’s campaign.

Cruel indeed.

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