Can You Hear Me Superman?

Can You Hear Me Superman?

I read somewhere that you can tell a lot about a person by finding out who her heroes are. I suppose that's fairly obvious. Take Homer Simpson. It comes as no surprise to find out that his hero is Superman, ("If you are up there and can hear me, I just want to say thank you for listening, Superman"). It occurs to me that it ought to be possible to extend this idea to national heroes. This is probably a tired old idea, used in seminars up and down the country, but most of the things I know, I learnt after leaving school, so as far as I'm concerned this is new and original. Anyone got a problem with that? Alright, let's try it out. I'll just stick to countries that I feel linked to, either by blood, language or shared history and ideas, and I'll start with Scotland, since it's my home.

The Scots, to coin a phrase, sure know how to pick 'em. Scottish heroes are sometimes unfortunate, very often tragic and always romantic, in the old sense. Arguably the greatest Scots hero of all was William Wallace. More than anyone else he stands, in Scottish hearts, for freedom and liberty. He had that rare and precious ability, shared by a handful of leaders such as Alfred the Great, Nelson, Churchill, and in America, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Lincoln, to lift up a nation, to become its voice and spirit, not through fear and oppression, the hallmark of the tyrant, but by reflecting the will of the people.

Wallace taught the nation that it could win against its mighty neighbour to the south. Although essentially a brilliant guerrilla fighter, he defeated a major English army at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. He was eventually betrayed to the English, taken down to London and tortured and executed as a traitor, which he certainly was not. Unlike many prominent Scots, he had never sworn allegiance to the English king, Edward 1st. In suffering a martyr's death Wallace became Scotland's first national hero, and paved the way for his own personal hero, Robert the Bruce.

The father of Robert de Brus was Anglo-Norman and his mother was the Celtic Countess of Carrick. He was descended from King William the Lion. Through Brus came the Royal House of Steward who produced the current British royal family. Robert the Bruce was not always a dedicated patriot. He was a landowner on both sides of the border, equally at home in the English and the Scottish court. Eventually he was forced to choose which side he was on. He chose the Scots cause and in 1314, at the Battle of Bannockburn he led them to victory over an English army twice their size. Bannockburn was the turning point in Scotland's struggle for independence. From this time on there was no question but that the Scots were a separate and independent nation.

Formal recognition of Scotland's rights was still required from the Pope. A representative group of the Scottish nobility wrote to him in a famous letter known as the 'Declaration of Arbroath', part of which went as follows:
_'For as long as there shall but one hundred
of us remain alive we will never give consent to subject
ourselves to the domination of the English. For it is not
glory, it is not riches, neither is it honour, but it is liberty
alone that we fight and contend for, which no
honest man will lose but with his life.'_

One of the most romantic, and at the same time tragic figures in Scottish history was Mary, Queen of Scots. Mary had been brought up in France and returned to Scotland on succeeding to the throne in 1560. She was eighteen years old, very attractive, impulsive and inexperienced in the machinations of Scottish court life. Everything went well at first but when she married her cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, her life changed and nothing ever went right for her again. She soon became disillusioned with her husband and took a lover, an Italian called Riccio, who was murdered in front of her in her room, by her jealous husband and others. It wasn't long before her husband was also assassinated. At this point poor Mary seems to have lost the plot completely and married the Earl of Bothwell, the man who was almost certainly involved in the murder of her husband.

It must have been clear to her by now that the only kind of luck she attracted was bad luck. After a few more set-backs she decided to head south to enlist help from her cousin, Elizabeth, Queen of England. This proved to be a fatal mistake. Far from helping her, Elizabeth had her arrested and imprisoned in a gloomy castle far to the north of London and the English court. She remained Elizabeth's prisoner for the rest of her life, some nineteen years, and was finally executed for 'treason' in 1587, which fate she met with great dignity.

Probably the best known of Scotland's heroes is Bonnie Prince Charlie who raised the standard in Scotland for the Jacobite cause. The name 'Jacobite' was a French version of 'James', i.e. the 'Old Pretender' James. Charles Edward Stuart was actually more Italian than Scottish and was only in Scotland for less than a year. His campaign culminated in the disastrous battle of Culloden in 1746, the last battle ever fought on British soil. Following the defeat of the Scottish army, he abandoned his followers and, with the help of the wonderful Flora MacDonald, fled the country, dressed as a washerwoman. His undignified exit has always reminded me of the story of Toad of Toad Hall, who also fled the law, dressed as a washerwoman. I wonder if that's where Kenneth Graham got the idea. After all he was a Scot.

The Jacobite army had at one point struck deep into England, and in fact came to within a hundred miles of London, before turning back. The English, badly scared by the whole business now did their best to destroy the Highland clan system by driving off the Highlanders cattle, burning their homes and banning the singing of gaelic songs, the wearing of the kilt and other gaelic traditions - an eerie precurser of the treatment meted out to the northern Plains Indians in America after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

So there you have Scotland's heroes, all tragic and all more or less in conflict with their powerful neighbour across the border. England, on the other hand, doesn't seem to create the same kind of heroes. It's true that Boadicea is a genuine heroine, from the same mold as Wallace, but strictly speaking she was not English. She was the leader of one of the Celtic tribes who fought the Romans before the Saxons came to Britain. In our day (more or less), Churchill was a great leader and hero, but he led the entire British nation, not just England. Besides, his mother was American...

That really only leaves Alfred the Great and Nelson as English military heroes. If you ask English children what they know about Alfred they'll probably tell you that he burnt the cakes when he was left in charge of the kitchen, rather than that he was the country's last desperate hope of saving the Anglo-Saxon world from Viking tyranny.

The English are traditionally suspicious of strong military leaders. William the Conqueror, for instance, was hated at the time, naturally enough, but that dislike still reverberates in the form of the English class system, now thankfully dying out. Or take Edward 1st., who, at the time of William Wallace, defeated Scots armies time after time and built massive castles across Wales, but is not regarded as a hero. Neither is Henry 5th., in spite of the spin Shakespeare put on his exploits in France and his triumph, at odds of seven to one, at Agincourt.

It's interesting to contrast the two Englishmen who helped to defeat Napoleon Bonaparte - Nelson and the Duke of Wellington. Both were brilliant strategists, both got results. Wellington was respected but not much liked, Nelson was adored by the British public. Wellington was a rather frosty character, who treated his men with contempt, while Nelson genuinly liked his men and was concerned with reforming conditions in the fleet. I think his affair with Lady Hamilton didn't do him any harm either, as far as the public were concerned.

Dick Whittington is probably one of the best loved of English heroes. The story goes that as a poor boy from the country he tried several times to make his fortune in London. When at last he gave up and headed off for the sticks, he hadn't gone far before he heard the bells of London - 'Bow Bells' - saying, "Turn again, Dick Whittington, three times Lord Mayor of London". Back he went and became Lord Mayor as the bells had forecast. Oh yes, and he had a cat. The reality is fairly close to the myth, but he was remembered at the time as a benefactor to the poor and to charities.

I think the hero that most completely stands for English virtues,as perceived by themselves, would have to be Robin Hood. Nobody knows whether he really existed. Was he the Earl of Huntingdon or possibly Sir Robin of Locksley? Most of the stories are set in mid-12th. century, when Richard 1st was away at the Crusades. The modern Robin Hood was popularised by Sir Walter Scott in 'Ivanhoe', but in a way it doesn't really matter if he existed or not. He stands for freedom from oppression and the rights of the poor and vunerable, so it's right and proper that he should be England's most popular hero.

In moving across the Atlantic, it seems to me that Canada doesn't really go in for heroes, although I'm sure they exist. My own list would start with Grey Owl, who pioneered an awareness of Canadian wildlife issues and was the friend of the Ojibway. When he died in 1938 it was realized that he was not an Indian. In fact his name was Archie Belaney and he was from Hastings in England. Then there would be Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote Anne of Green Gables, which was about her childhood on Prince Edward Island. Finally I'd probably include White Fang and Joni Mitchell as my personal favourites.

Heroes are not in short supply in America, in fact the making of America is a heroic story in itself. I can't say too much about American heroes; not because I don't know who they are, but because it's not for me to say what they mean to Americans. The earlier ones were, naturally, concerned with the forming of the nation - George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abe Lincoln, possibly Paul Revere. I think Davy Crockett counts - 'King of the Wild Frontier', according to the song.

Then there are the Native American heroes, Sitting Bull, Geronimo and my favourite, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. Chief Joseph, with his band of 200 warriors and 500 women and children, conducted one of the most brilliant retreats in American history. In over three months this small, forlorn band fought off 2000 U.S. soldiers in four major battles and numerous skirmishes. They travelled 1400 miles and got to within forty miles of the Canadian border and sanctuary before being forced to give up. When he finally surrendered, Chief Joseph made this speech:

_'I am tired of fighting. Our chiefs are killed,
Looking Glass is dead, Tu-hul-hil-sote is dead.
It is the young men who say yes or no.
He who lead the young men is dead.
It is cold and we have no blankets.
The little children are freezing to death
My people - some of them have run away
to the hills and have no blankets, no food.
No-one knows where there are - perhaps freezing to death.
I want to have time to look for my children and see how many
of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead.
Hear me, my chiefs, my heart is sick and sad.
From where the sun now stands I will fight
no more against the white man'.
Chief Joseph 1877_

Coming nearer to our own time, there is no doubt John Kennedy is an American hero, and so, of course, is Martin Luther King, and I see no reason at all why the New York firefighters who were on duty on the day of the Twin Towers should not qualify too.

James Collins @ Scottish Essays