Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes.
We can’t all be heroes because somebody has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.
Il n’y a pas de grand homme pour son valet-de-chambre.]
MME A.M. BIGOT DE CORNUEL
A man can be a hero if he is a scientist, or a soldier, or a drug addict, or a disc jockey, or a crummy mediocre politician. A man can be a hero because he suffers and despairs; or because he thinks logically and analytically; or because he is “sensitive;” or because he is cruel. Wealth establishes a man as a hero, and so does poverty. Virtually any circumstance in a man’s life will make him a hero to some group of people and has a mythic rendering in the culture — in literature, art, theater, or the daily newspapers.
Bardot, Byron, Hitler, Hemingway, Monroe, Sade: we do not require our heroes to be subtle, just to be big. Then we can depend on someone to make them subtle.
The fame of heroes owes little to the extent of their conquests and all to the success of the tributes paid to them.
When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.
ALLEN GINSBERG (paraphrasing Plato)
Although still, by and large, an unreconstructed hippy at the time of its inception, I was very taken with the punk movement that swept away the last traces of paisley and patchouli oil at the end of the ‘70s. What impressed me most was that within all that glorious over-reaction and comedy bombast there was an ethos that, although crude and undeveloped, had about it a degree of honesty and authenticity almost entirely lacking from the, by now, largely burned out and discredited ‘alternative society’. Where specious attempts had been made to elevate to the status of a functional philosophy for everyday living the unfocussed and contradictory liberalism at the heart of hippie-dom, the punk impulse was simply to blow away the fairy dust with one almighty blast of feedback. All the spurious codes of unconditional ‘respect’ for the individual, er…no, the community, er…well, for both, then, that shored up the world of the Freaks and the Heads were simply ignored. All the unquestioning adulation that extrapolated unusual proficiency on a music instrument to all other regions of mind and spirit was laughed to scorn and the great hippie icons began to tumble.
For all the adolescent sound and fury that came with this sudden grassroots revolution, I found it all thoroughly refreshing, indeed liberating. There was enough dadaist and situationist know-how seasoned with good, old-fashioned British anarchism alongside the pure street suss to indicate at least a degree of conscious political and philosophical subversion. And many of the most sorted of the core dissenters whose gleeful iconoclasm had sparked off the original UK hippie bonfires moved comfortably across to the new positions along the barricades. So I became a gleeful onlooker as locks were shorn and jeans were torn all around whilst the bloated denizens of prog rock blundered onwards, seemingly oblivious to what was happening to the walls now that the mode of the music had changed. When The Stranglers brought out No More Heroes in 1977 and it became, for a brief while, the mocking anthem of a generation determined to deny even 15 minutes of fame to those thrust upon them by a confused music industry, I was delighted. And now, all these years later, I am as grateful for the hangover from those times of cheerful contempt for all forms of solemn and hitherto largely unassailable authority as I am for the more substantive freedoms whose shoots broke ground 10 years earlier.
Brecht had stated 30 years earlier, ‘Unhappy the land that is in need of heroes’. Whilst Hugh Cornwell’s entire lyric to No More Heroes may contain considerably less political acumen than that single utterance, nonetheless it did embody at that time something of the sense of a generation eschewing unquestioned status, rank, privilege, authority. It was this wholesale rejection of the cult of the individual that I found particularly invigorating. At last, it seemed, emperors everywhere were to be divested of their clothing. Not that it was to last…
Since childhood I have been uncomfortable with the notion of heroism. Not with the recognition that we accord to those modest souls who conquer fear and circumstance to perform acts of selfless courage. It’s our readiness to attribute to individuals who have eminence in one sphere, however spurious, a sort of cascading universality of esteem way beyond its original territory that troubles me. And my unease is made the greater by the fact that, far from carrying forward with us some vestige of that brief sardonic rejection of on-the-spot immortality, we seem to be afflicted anew with a hunger for heroes more intense than ever before.
In fact, we’re so starved of circumstantial heroes that we actually have to manufacture them in order to feed the public greed. The organisers of so-called ‘reality shows’ (and what media cynic is till grinning wolfishly at that piece of ironic nomenclature?) dip the net into the piranha pool and a small selection of ordinary, everyday monomaniacs is scooped out and placed in a sealed environment. The world watches as their rapacious ambition flares up into open conflict and, like the Roman Mob only more executively powerful, our thumbs are raised or turned down until only one survivor remains. And then, our having exercised total power over their day-to-day fate, we reward them by raising them up on our shoulders and parading them through the streets. Or more specifically by turning yesterday’s motor mechanic or dental nurse into a game show host, or a serial talk show guest, or simply a sad, yelling drunk drawing a fat cheque for falling out of the back of a cab outside a society party. At which point in their careers as celebrities famous only for being famous our worship is expressed at its most slavish.
Equally perverse, it seems to me, is what might be termed the guru tendency. In a world within which tools for self-determination and personal autonomy have never been closer to hand, we seem increasingly to need the advice and guidance of experts and the prescriptive direction of gurus. In fact, far from utilising information technology to consolidate our relative freedoms, many of us use it to lock ourselves into an electronic chain of command within the links of which our security is assured.
Nor does the dissolution of organised religion in the West seem to have brought us either into a closer, more negotiated, more intimate relationship with God or a willing, courageous, even welcomed denial of his existence. Into the vacuum left by the departure of God as the patrician teacher and judge there has been sucked a cataract of gimcrack gurus each dispensing his or her patent horse pills by the cartload to the willing punters. And where the patrician teacher and judge still prevails – or prevails anew – he does so with renewed vigour, trading on nostalgia for analogue certainties in these days of digital flux.
It seems that we cannot relinquish the need to lionise, to worship, to adulate, to demand from our peers that one of them at least rise above the herd to characterise some model of perfection. Not a model that will then represent goals towards which we might aspire, but a model in whose long shadow we might shelter when times are tough and the night is dark.
I don’t think I’ve ever really had any heroes. When I was 5 or 6 Winston Churchill’s name still struck gold; we kids in playground and street accepted as an article of faith that he was the warrior-god who had delivered our mums and dads from the Nazi hordes. My parents took me to see the film Hans Christian Andersen at the Kingston Granada cinema and the following day down the river at Sunbury Danny Kaye sat himself down at the neighbouring table in our favourite Italian restaurant. I got his autograph and for a long time afterwards I felt that I’d been touched by the gods. At around the same time the Queen smiled at me from her passing car as I struggled at the front of the roadside crowd with the family dog in my arms. For a week or two I speculated about the possibility of a summons to the palace so that she might get a closer look.
But somehow, over the years, neither rock-and-roll nor film nor football yielded up the gilded hero for me. Somehow it was always apparent that, however pronounced the talent, the pretender still bathed naked and had difficulty with simple sums. Somehow it was always apparent that if it was appropriate to be inarticulate with terror in the presence of the guitar god then obeisance should be made to the plumber too whose magical skills cleared the blocked drains. Unhesitatingly, I blame the parents. My mother and father were entirely without snobbery in either direction. All manner of folk passed through our house and were perceived equally. My parents sent me to progressive schools whose populations simply comprised small people and larger people with no clear differentiation as to rights and privileges drawn between them. So in my formative years the learning processes that lead to status ascription just didn’t seem to happen. Ever since, I have had to read carefully the interactional expectations of authority figures so as not to offend or confuse. And when in authority myself, I have had to modify my behaviour according to what I anticipate to be the expectations of those subject to my sway.
And, all in all, I am mightily glad of this curious freedom. To be able to admire and respect substantively and enduringly without according authority beyond the field of the perceived quality seems to me a valuable asset. But it’s not one that has been hard won; it has been taught, not caught and I am grateful to my parents and to those others whose inculcation of particular values seems to have obviated in me the need to have heroes.