Yesterday’s heroes?

September 12, 2007 at 3:00 am Leave a comment

James Evans JenkinsI know the climate change skeptics will jump on me for this – but jump on the Mail & Guardian Online instead please. An article in this newspaper the other day flashed the headline of “Ice-free Arctic could be here in 23 years“. Not 5 or 10 years; not 20 years; but 23 years. Intriguing. Science Daily thinks it might be within 100 years. Live Science pinpoints 2105 as the year. I don’t suppose the exact timing really matters – the climate is stuffed and the Earth is pretty doomed – sorry, in a maudlin state today after seeing this picture of poor polar bears clinging to melting ice floes.

This image is in sharp contrast to the picture painted in the book I just polished off – True North by Bruce Henderson – the story of brutal rivalry between the two American polar explorers, Frederick Cook and Robert Peary as they raced to claim the North Pole in the early 1900s. I plan to read more on polar discovery – next up is Endurance by Alfred Lansing about Shackleton’s voyage to the Antarctic. But I must say that Peary sounds as though he wasn’t a good sport.

Anyway, what struck me about polar exploration was the landscape and the calibre of the person who set off into the unknown. Chapters were filled with descriptions of abundant ice stretching as far as the eye could see; wild arctic storms that froze the legs and tails of huskies into the ice; ink black nights illuminated by the occasional sliver of glittering ice; rough terrain in which ice cover could literally appear or disappear overnight.

//library.osu.edu/sites/archives/polar/cook/cphoto.phpI was fascinated by the portrayal of Cook. His photo shows a man of extraordinary determination but with compassionate eyes and an overall softness to his face. (Photo credit: http://library.osu.edu/sites/archives/polar/cook/cphoto.php). He was lured by the siren call of the Arctic it seems – was he in fact the true discover of the North Pole and not Peary, who claimed to have discovered it in 1909? Peary’s claim remains controversial. Peary seemed driven by fame but Cook perhaps by a call to adventure.

Then I watched Flags of our Fathers – the WWII film about the raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima and how the three-surviving flag raisers were trotted around the US, lauded as heroes, in an effort to persuade Americans to buy war bonds to raise money for the war effort.

So the pattern is about heroic deeds: reluctant heroes or tragic heroes like Cook (because his instruments were left behind in the Arctic and not brought back by Peary, as gentlemanly behaviour of the time dictated – Cook was accused of having a weakly-documented claim, if not accused of downright lying). Heroes doing their bit for family and country. Heroes doggedly soldiering on in the face of adversity or failure. Heroes who are humble in the face of fame. The world is a whole lot smaller now. Not many steamy, rugged jungles for a Stanley-type to slash his way through and emerge muttering “Dr Livingstone I presume?“. The Moon is passé, so 1960s – been there, done that.

And so, have we replaced these larger-than-life physical heroes with fictional action men like Indiana Jones? If we viewed WWII veterans like Sir Douglas Bader (who lost both his legs in a pre-war flying accident) as heroes, then who are our current heroes? I know it’s a question I’ve asked before and still grapple with. In a world filled with celebrities who have lost their knickers on their way to another stint in rehab or entrepeneurs who earn squillions overnight for the latest innovation – who do we look to for inspiration? Is our society hero-poor? Do we still feel the need to create heroes? Are heroes still fashionable?

I came across this interesting essay by Canadian author Charlotte Gray who laments the Canadian reluctance (as she sees it) to embrace heroes. Canadian currency depicts birds and Prime Ministers, not war heroes or outstanding figures from the past. At least Australian currency fares a little better with poet Banjo Patterson, an Aboriginal writer and inventor and the founder of the Royal Flying Doctor Service.

Gray says: “Most countries choose individuals with larger-than-life qualities to mythologize: extraordinary imagination, against-the-odds bravery, brilliant creativity. There are colourful characters in our collective past who embody such qualities – think of Sir Sandford Fleming, inventor of Standard Time; Dr Frederick Banting, co-discoverer of insulin; the fighter pilot, Billy Bishop. Why aren’t they on our money, instead of stuffy old Mackenzie King?”.

So how do we define “hero” (or heroine)? The US have their Founding Fathers and the Kennedys I suppose; France has Joan of Arc; the UK has Churchill; and Australia? Well, we worship the heck out of sporting people. What do you think it means to be a hero? Who are our modern heroes? Can you imagine if Frederick Cook popped into a time capsule and ended up in 2007 – apart from being aghast at the melting polar ice, he might also wonder if heroic figures have also melted away.

Over the last hundred years or so, we’ve equated heroes with explorers; politicians; armed servicemen; inventors; astronauts – people who have pushed the boundaries; met the unknown head-on; shown valour; inspired a generation; led a country through hard times. What do we equate our heroes with now? And what do they do?

The photo accompanying this post is of my father, James Evans Jenkins (great Welsh name eh!) who was a WWII fighter pilot for the New Zealand Air Force. I guess most girls say they’re fathers are their heroes :)-

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Entry filed under: Climate Change, Reflections.

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