18 June 2015

No more heroes

[Originally started on 16 May]
Few books have had such an influence on me than Christopher McDougall's Born to Run. Not, as I explained to the guy I was sitting next to at the launch event for the writer's most recent book, Natural Born Heroes, an influence on my life, but on my running (though at times the two have been indistinguishable).
Presented with an opportunity to hear McDougall speak, to mingle with some like-minded people, to get my hands on an autographed copy of the new book, and to enjoy a free beer courtesy of the sponsors Vivobarefoot provided I turned up wearing their shoes (in the end no-one seemed to check), I could hardly resist: and, beer and book apart, I could hardly have been more disappointed. Hoping to get the author's autograph on (or should that be "in"?) my copy of BTR, and conscious that I would not be able to stay late, I approached him as he wandered up and down the stage: and he told me that he was busy just then and there would be a time for autographs later. Well, not for me, unfortunately.
Whatever he was busy with, the show took an hour after the doors opened to get under way, which now reminds me of some of those gigs I went to decades ago - Lindisfarne at the Locarno in Sunderland, for example - where you waited yonks for what you'd actually come for.
I foolishly took a seat, having drawn a blank with my attempt to interact with the speaker, and in doing so forewent the opportunity to meet anyone except those seated immediately around me (of whom only one seemed interested in talking to me anyway). But of course I expected the show to start ... When it did, I realised that my schedule really didn't permit me to hang around any longer so I left after about a quarter of an hour. It was billed as a seven o'clock start, and while that doesn't mean I'd expect it to start at that time I think it's reasonable to expect it to get under way about half an hour after the doors open. Had it been billed as an eight o'clock start (doors open at seven) I'd have known where I stood, and perhaps made arrangements to be later returning home. If I didn't like the books, or the shoes, I definitely wouldn't be better-disposed towards them now: but fortunately for them I do.
Not without reservation, though. I'm disappointed that my shoes quite quickly developed holes in the uppers, although they still work fine. (And my Achilles sandals were extremely uncomfortable for my big toes, then the heel strap broke on one of the few occasions I tried to use them.) As for the book, I couldn't put it down: McDougall has a gift for weaving together seemingly unrelated subject-matter into a compelling read. I started to read it for the Crete story, which is superb and well-told (and I am encouraged after talking to a friend about it to seek out the Leigh Fermor original), but fully expected the other stuff to be fascinating - and it was, even all the stuff about parcour which frankly I had previously dismissed as an unnecessary fad (why not just go for a run?).
I did not expect the book to have been translated from the original American English, and of course I'm accustomed to reading books by American authors who use their own vernacular. (I do however hate books by British authors which have been translated for the benefit of American readers - one Iain Rankin novel I read some time ago particularly grated.) But even making allowances, I groaned several times in the course of reading it. Disappear, for one thing, is an intransitive verb: you don't "disappear" something, although you might make it disappear. (Postscript: As my great friend Bob reminded me after I'd posted this, Joseph Heller got away with it in Catch 22, but Christopher McDougall is not in the same league, and not using the language for the same effect.) But more seriously, a complete failure to respect local usages (a common example of US arrogance, unfortunately): The Travellers' Club, being in London, uses the English spelling of its name, and no English schoolchild ever obtained a degree from their school. Mr McDougall was not writing for the benefit of other writers, of course, and I am a self-confessed pedant: nor was he addressing a British audience. Even so, I think that any author (and publisher) should show respect for those about whom, and for whom, they write. It's simple courtesy. Not that I am going to hold it against him (against the publisher, now that's another matter): I am however amused by the irony in finding that someone so closely associated with running should have feet of clay ...
Which brings me to another topic, and the one that I intended to concentrate on in this post. McDougall spends some time in the book exploring the etymology of the word 'hero', one of those words which I think has fallen victim to a form of hyper-inflation in recent years, or perhaps decades is the right interval. Increasingly I find I have to measure time in decades when formerly I would have done so in years. I realised - and I don't know why - some years, even decades, ago that heroes are dangerous things to have. One can admire other people, and even seek to emulate their achievements, adopting them as role models, but if your heroes are human (and of course not everyone's are) they are flawed. They all have feet of clay. A student whom I was coaching recently finished the essay through which I had guided him (I carefully avoid any suggestion that I helped with it), and he told me that I was his hero: I assured him that this was a terrible idea. I know my flaws, or some of them, and he doesn't, but adopting someone as a hero risks embracing the flaws and elevating them to a status that they should not have. 'Hero' is too unqualified, too uncritical.
Of course, stories have heroes, but that's a special usage and a rather different meaning. I'm currently reading Gogol's Dead Souls, in which the hero Chichikov is a most unheroic figure. Can a hero be unheroic? I think so - just as an artistic work in copyright law need not have artistic quality. It's a matter of defining your terms and using them to mean what you intend.
McDougall's heroes - those referred to in the title of his book, or at least the ones in Crete - behave heroically, and on one level deserve to be known as heroes, but they remain human beings and they therefore have their flaws. Would they wish to be regarded as heroes? I doubt it - one common aspect of heroes is that they tend to be rather self-effacing. I have never heard a soldier decorated for bravery claim that it was only what he deserved. Perhaps the act of doing something truly heroic makes people better appreciate their deficiencies. Doing something as un-heroic as coaching a law student certainly drew my attention to some of mine.

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