Thursday, 12 September 2013

Heroes v. Heroes - Fiction v. Reality

I write stories.  If my life depended on it I'd starve, but it does make me think about heroes.  I've been thinking a lot about them recently.  In particular how the heroes in stories differ so dramatically from heroes in reality.  OK, everyone's heroes are different so I'll talk about mine and you can compare them with yours. If you have any you want to share, put them in the comments below, I would be interested.

When I was a teenager I read loads of fiction, mainly action/adventure.  Usually war books whether historical or set in the far future.  I watched loads similar films.  Fighting, killing, violence was meted out by the 'good guys' or heroes.  It could have been James Bond, Ian Flemming's spy, or Richard Sharpe from Bernard Cornwall's novels, Mack Bolan of Don Pendleton's Executioner Series or Remo Williams the 'Destroyer' created by Richard Sapir and Warren Murphy.  There were many others, but these stick in my mind (I still have Destroyer #1).  Being a hero seemed to be about hurting, killing, more likely than not, the person you had issues with.

Most were tall, all were physical men, with a dominating presence.  Bond and Sharpe are six feet tall.  A modern version, Lee Child's Jack Reacher, is six feet, four inches (Tom Cruise? - go figure).

Strangely, even as I ravenously read these tales, imagining myself breaking heads and killing, wanting to be like them, I knew these were not real heroes; however, irresistible they were.  There is a strong ancient core to our spirit that has tall, strong, violent men as heroes.  They are the model of heroes, as far back as the Greeks and their obsession with physically perfect warriors, or look to the Anglo-Saxon and Viking Sagas, of powerful men performing mighty deeds.  Fast forward to the modern super-heroes, they are a fantasy we're attached to, they are empowerment.

Brutal, efficient widow-makers, alpha males, who in our primitive animal-minds are seen as the best of us except they're not.  These are the bruisers who rarely make life better, they simply solve a problem with extreme prejudice.  Fun to read about, not necessarily fun to be with.  Good writers show this, they show the dysfunction of being a primeval hero.

'Yes,' thinks the teenage boy in me, 'breaking heads, punching someone's lights out, that's problem solving.'  With a mighty frame and a reputation, I won't suffer no lip from anyone.  Lacking a mighty frame and a trail of dead enemies behind me, I suffered a lot of lip and the appeal of this type of hero still pulls at my imagination.  It's probably the attraction for us all, to have power, and if you want to read about them or even write about them that's fine.  I still do.  When I write, a little voice - much louder as I've grown older - says make your heroes a bit more like the real ones, the men and women you truly wish you were like.

Real, flesh and blood, heroes are rarely like the fiction, even real 'action heroes'.  Definitely they don't have witty one-liners.

Here's a few of my heroes, compare and contrast with the fictional ones you know.

'Action Heroes'

The most decorated American soldier in World War II was Audie Murphy.   Estimates of his height range from 5'5'' to 5'8''.  It's difficult to judge, because he was a malnourished 15/16 year old when he lied about his age to join up.  When you look at photos of him, even after the war, he looks like a harmless kid.  You can't imagine the fearless firebrand he was.  Wouldn't believe him standing on a burning tank manning a machine gun or leading a counter attack despite multiple injuries.  For me what makes him a hero is that when his family was abandoned by their father and their mother died and he took it upon himself to provide for his siblings.  After the war he worked hard for charities supporting traumatised soldiers and admitted to suffering from post traumatic stress himself.  That's a hero.

The most decorated British 'other rank' (non officer) Soldier of World War I was William H Coltman.  He was 5'4'' and never fired a shot in anger.  A committed Christian he would not kill, but was equally committed to serve his country and so joined a stretcher-bearer company.  He served from 1915 to 1918 and won every honour the nation could bestow, two Distinguished Conduct Medals (DCM), two Military Medals (MM) and finally a Victoria Cross (VC).  He rescued men trapped on 'the wire' in no man's land, whilst under heavy fire, he carried away dangerous ammunition from a burning arms dump and did much more.  Dozens, maybe hundreds of men owed their lives to this man.  Always modest, he always pointed out that all his awards were for saving lives not taking them.

Captain Fegen of HMS Jervis Bay decided to sacrifice his poorly armed converted merchantman by putting the ship in the way of the German heavy cruiser Admiral Scheer.  Utterly out gunned, the ship was destroyed and Fegen killed, but 32 of the 37 ships in the convoy he was protecting escaped.  He wouldn't have known if his actions would save the ships, but did know it was certain death to steer head on toward such a mighty war machine.  In that convoy was a merchantman San Demetrio, badly damaged and left to burn, she was salvaged by a portion of its own crew, that story alone is a tale of heroism.

Non 'Action Heroes' 

During the Crimean War (1853 to 1856) conditions were bad for injured soldiers and Florence Nightingale is famous for her nursing work and organising the improved treatment of the wounded.  Less famous was Jamaican Mary 'Mother' Seacole.  She travelled to London to offer her nursing skills.  This was refused by Nightingale's patron.  Seacole suspected this was down to the colour of her skin (I am suspicious it had more to do with the class prejudice rife in Victorian society, but she was there, I wasn't).  That didn't stop her, under her own 'steam', she travelled to the Crimean, offering her services directly to Nightingale who rejected her.  Like that was going to stop her.  She carried on, reaching as close to the front as she could setting up 'The British Hotel' using her practical medical knowledge to treat the injured.  Sometimes she would go out into the field to treat the wounded of all nationalities where they had fallen.

In the eighteenth century, when Captain Thomas Coram returned from America to retire, he probably thought his hardest days were over.  For him, living in London meant he witnessed the almost every day the horror of abandoned children dying in the gutters of his home town.  He campaigned for years for something to be done, and then understood that it would have to be he who did it.  He founded the Foundling Hospital and with help from William Hogath and George Frederic Handel managed to keep it going.  In the early days the odds of survival in the hospital were roughly 50/50, on the street virtually nil.  It takes a different kind of courage to take on such a burden and change the world.

In the late 1940s Dr John Stapp was a US Army Air Corp doctor studying the effects of harsh deceleration on the human body.  His aim was to improve the survivability of air crashes and his work later helped improved the safety of cars too.   All very dry and straight forward.  The only way to find out what the human body can survive is to test one.  Stapp would not risk anyone's life but his own, and so he under went a series of crash tests culminating in a rocket sled ride ending with a 45g deceleration.  Search out the video of the test.  Amongst the other damage he sustained, he broke almost every blood vessel in his eyes which filled with blood and yet survived.  I wouldn't even bungie jump, but he coldly risked death to save people who would never know his name.

I have dozens of others spinning in my head.  They inform my writing when I think of heroes and characters and, more importantly, how I live.

Useful Links

Audie L. Murphy Memorial Website
Mary Seacole Memorial Website
Thomas Coram's Foundling Hospital

Useful Books

To Hell and Back  by Audie Murphy
VCs of the First World War - The Final Days 1918 by Gerald Gliddon
Victoria's Wars by Saul David


San Demetrio London (1943)