Heroes and Hero worship

We can be heroes, just for one day – Bowie

As I left my gym on Friday, perspiring, reminded once again of my diminishing strength, suppleness and aerobic capacity, I passed Felipe Anderson. I had a double-take, confirmed it was him, and disappeared into the shower area smiling. He is one of my footballing heroes. He has exceptional technique, he glides gracefully with or without the ball, and is a pleasure to watch. As a long standing, and an often long suffering, Hammers fan, I thought of how few players I have seen play with his excellence in claret and blue. I have seen great servants of the club, all of whom I admired, like Billy Bonds, Frank Lampard Snr., and Alvin Martin, but of those I have seen play, in the flesh, only Brooking, Moore and Payet have been in the very top pantheon. Ferdinand had yet to achieve world class status when I saw him play. Leaving the gym I found myself thinking about heroes and hero worship.

I spent that evening in a Clerkenwell pub, listening to Tony Walsh, sometimes better known as ‘Longfella’, performing a number of his wonderful poems. To me, he is something of a hero. He shared wit, skill, humility and unpretentious delivery, some hard, rough poetic technique and a few jokes, in two forty-five minute sets. Heroes are not confined to athletic fields. It was listening to Longfella that made me start considering why we admire certain individuals, and why to us they become a sort of hero. It is hardly a new topic for reflection. Thomas Carlyle’s 1840 lectures ‘On Heroes, hero-worship, and the Heroic in History’ said much that needed to be said, but this blog is about my personal reflections on things that I find important. It is my way of making sense of the world around me. One psychology paper I read referred to heroes and hero narratives fulfilling important cognitive and emotional needs, including the need for wisdom, meaning, hope, inspiration, and growth. That makes sense to me.

Thomas Carlyle Biography - Childhood, Life Achievements ...
Thomas Carlyle

Carlyle told his audience he was talking about “gods, prophets, priests, kings, poets, teachers”. That is not to claim that his heroes were different to any common man. Indeed, he was a meritocrat ascribing regal, ‘kingly’, status to his heroes. One, a poet and a common man, was Robert Burns. There was no “chancellor, king, senator” in England, so momentous as Burns, thought Carlyle. Obviously that appealed to me! Carlyle believed that the artist hero combined the politician, thinker, legislator and philosopher.

It brings me to Walsh, and to Vincent Van Gogh. Van Gogh read Carlyle and makes references to the lectures in diaries and letters. The lectures were published in book form as a “beautiful little book” that he recommends to his brother Theo. Van Gogh is uppermost in my mind because I saw the wonderful ‘Van Gogh and Britain’ exhibition at the Tate, this weekend. Artistically, he became a hero to many. He changed perspectives on colour and on technique. Gaugin thought his canvasses were more like sculptures. One of the pleasures of this exhibition is the last couple of rooms, which show the Van Gogh influence amongst more modern painters, as they adapted his style and the compositions he had created. Francis Bacon’s canvas made the biggest impression on me. Even geniuses have heroes, though. For Van Gogh it included Charles Dickens. He wrote that “my whole life is aimed at making things from everyday life that Dickens describes”. I found that idea comforting. Even the greatest admire, or hero-worship others.

Tony Walsh is a poet, a profound thinker, and he addresses political issues. He may not be a legislator, but he is quite a philosopher. Tragedy shot him into public consciousness after the killing of more than twenty Ariana Grande fans in a terrorist atrocity in Manchester two years ago. At the subsequent public memorial, Walsh read his poem, ‘This is the Place’, which is incredibly moving. It sounded like it was written to help Manchester heal but he had, in fact, written it some time before. It is incredibly apt, though. It found its way on to twitter and was re-tweeted by Michelle Obama amongst others. It trended fourth, globally, for some time.

Walsh’s life has been re-made, but his focus remains socially relevant, angry but witty poems. (I strongly recommend a you tube visit to watch him perform ‘Arts and Minds’). He has worked in schools, prisons and housing associations and is proud of his working class background. As a wordsmith, he is a hero to me. I am about to turn 55 years old, but on Friday night I was like a little boy watching admiringly and thinking ‘I wish I could have written that’ and ‘I wish I could perform publicly like this.’ He visibly moved his audience with poems praising his wife and his marriage, and a couple on the impact of parenthood. I had my eldest for company, and it was especially affecting.

So, I wondered, what makes a hero? Why do we need to worship heroes? Does everyone have heroes? Where does hero worship start? Do heroes reflect our better selves? Are we able to tolerate flaws in our heroes? What do we mean by an unsung hero? And, is there a difference between behaving heroically and being a hero? Lastly, which people do I regard as heroes, and why are they important to me? I think heroes are connected with idealisation. The Medical Dictionary suggests that idealisation is a conscious or unconscious mental mechanism (obviously psychoanalysis was going to come in to this piece before long) in which the subject overestimates an admired aspect or attribute of another person. It dwells on advantages and ignores deficiencies. I think this is important because it allows us to nominate flawed individuals as heroes. It may explain why Churchill tops polls as modern Britain’s greatest hero, despite, or perhaps because of, his personal weaknesses and flaws. I count myself as a Churchill admirer.

If we all idealise, and it is possible that that is true, then we all have heroes. If that is true; why? I think it is because we all aspire to be our best selves. In our heroes we see elements of someone that we would like to have better developed within ourselves. It is certainly true comparing my footballing skills when at Witham Town, with Felipe Anderson’s for West Ham. It is true of my rhythm and rhyming skills with words, compared with Walsh. It is emphatically true of my skills with a paint brush, compared with any of the artists whose work I admired on Sunday morning. So, I think a hero, is a representation of an admirable part of our self, that we would like to feel is bigger, and more representative of the individual we see when we reflect on our own image and personality.

When do we start hero-worship? This may differ for most people but I suspect that a majority would answer that a parent was their first hero/heroine, insofar as the primary caregiver became someone to become. Not to replace, in that Oedipal sense, but to acquire the maturity and skills and competence and social status of this first hero/heroine. Mine was certainly my father. I can recall a weekend when we were sharing the bathroom at our home in Chelmsford and asking about his shaving routine, and when I would be able to and need to shave. Facial hair represented manliness and some sort of accomplishment, and it was something that I wanted. I recall asking my mother what attracted her to him, and being surprised to learn that it was his voice. I noted the number of adults of both sexes who described him as “good” or “fine” or simply, “a nice man”. If I could be like that, I thought that things would turn out fine. Trevor Brooking and Ken McEwan appeared before long, but in no way displaced my first ‘hero’.

Why do we need to worship heroes? I think this is interesting in the context of some heroes not being real people but fictional, imaginary heroes. The success of the Marvel comics franchise characters on the cinema screen these days bemuses me but it clearly touches something needy in a wider audience. Superheroes demonstrate prosocial behaviours, they are often depicted handling an ethical dilemma and always demonstrate leadership. The ability to identify with these traits, many of which we believe we lack, is a comfort as well as an aspiration.

When I was growing up Sherlock Holmes was a hero to me, and he was as real as any favourite footballer or cricketer I was admiring. His unwillingness to accept the conventional approach, his intellectual and observational superiority, and the independence of the London dwelling bachelor. There was so much of Holmes that I wanted to absorb and to have. Even then, I understood he was an ambivalent, ambiguous character with contempt for the law and a love of deceit. Perhaps that was the attraction. Perhaps we actually need our heroes to be flawed, so that what they represent does not seem utterly unattainable. So, I think heroes do represent our better selves, and yes, I think we can tolerate flaws in our heroes.

The idea of the unsung hero is attractive. Heroism is bestowed by circumstance, one cannot set out to be a hero, although one can aspire to behave heroically. In early June, 2017, I was walking back from the Globe Theatre through Borough Market. I turned into the market to be greeted with people running at me and a great deal of consternation and commotion. Within moments a gunshot filled the air and I was being ushered away to Southwark tube. When I got there, I saw legions of armed police running from the stairwells of the tube out on to the streets. I learned that eight people had lost their lives. Whilst I was retreating I watched these young men and women running toward whatever was unfolding. Trained, they may have been, but that is heroic.

Their very anonymity means they remain unsung. But I gave thanks that night when I opened my front door, and I am still deep in admiration. These people I cannot identify are very much in my collection of heroes. Unsung. They behaved heroically, but individually we cannot identify them as heroes, so my answer to the question that I posed is that being a hero and behaving heroically are separate. I see it in the work of the senior volunteers at Crisis. When I was helping at Christmas and proudly telling someone new to it all, that I had previous experience, I was suddenly aware of how much the evening’s leader had given. It was his 27th year. A kind of unsung heroism. Similarly, I find myself thinking of lifeboatmen. When my father in law was alive, he lived his retirement in Aldeburgh. Two constants when I visited him, were a pint in one of the many fine pubs selling Adnams ales, and a walk past, or visit to, the lifeboat station there. Those volunteers are real heroes.

Lastly, my heroes. I grew up in a household where sporting admiration held sway over much else. In my early teens I was a sprinter. When I was sixteen, Britain suddenly had the Olympic Champion over 100m. The US boycott of the Games meant nothing to me. My event, as I saw it, was was the domain of a determined Scotsman called Allan Wells. He was little covered by the media because the Thatcher government had put him under pressure not to compete. He gave no media interviews, even to those sympathetic to his views. So, oddly, he is somewhat unsung, given he is an Olympic champion. He missed gold in the 200m by 0.02 sec as well. His bloody mindedness – he is the oldest winner over the distance and the last white runner to win, struck me as heroic. I did not really have pop star and musician heroes, albeit that has changed a great deal. I loved theatre, though, and was one of the earliest supporters and fans of Kenneth Branagh. All Shakespearian actors get to represent heroism on stage, and I think I enjoyed what came out of his performances.

At the time, I think, I felt little need for heroes. The yuppie era was very ‘can do’ and about inspiring oneself, and taking opportunities. Mandela was yet to be revered, and I knew, I am ashamed to admit, little about Martin Luther King or Gandhi, or any other C20 claimant to heroic and iconic status. Even Muhammad Ali was someone I little understood outside of a boxing ring context. Perhaps, Cruyff on the football field, but it was more often a time of anti-heroes. The TV news was filled with violence, despair and deprivation in Northern Ireland’s Troubles. There was strife on the mainland too. The social dislocation of the government’s stifling of law breaking by the unions, with the consequences of the desperate miseries inflicted in industrial and mining communities led to lawlessness and riots. The humanity of a Tutu, doing ‘Truth and Reconciliation’ was yet to be apparent, as was the remarkable forgiveness of Mandela, because it and him were still interned on Robben Island. I think we wanted heroes at the time, which may have been reflected in the response to the Falklands War.

Now, though, I think heroes are important, for all of us. Bowie’s amazing song has a good deal of ambiguity. It is about what it takes to be a hero. It is clear to me that everyone has the capacity to be a hero and having heroes probably does have emotional and cognitive benefits. Last week I saw two remarkable short plays about young women. They are playing at the Bunker theatre and have been nominated for awards. One is called ‘Box Clever’ and the other ‘Killymuck’. In both cases, the heroine is a young woman who has suffered more than mere ‘sling and arrows of outrageous fortune’, they are trapped by circumstance – violent lovers, alcoholic fathers and are attempting to navigate their environment to survive. The benefits system and care homes, council housing and women’s refuges all become unsatisfactory binds. Home, such as it is, is hellish, but escaping it seems impossible. Dealing with that takes a special kind of heroism and I think of all the heroes in what we often patronisingly describe as the ‘underclass’. A visit to the Bunker Theatre is worth it to see heroic modern characters.

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