Nov 112011

As I write this, the live version of No Woman No Cry’s just come on the radio. A perfect piece of synchronicity: NWNC at the Lyceum is, I think, my favourite song, warming me and caressing me every time I hear it with its magical, sensual, seductive melodic power and its sweet-steady rhythms and harmonies. Above all, its utter, utter empathy with and compassion for everything that’s fabulous and painful about being human make me feel happy, make me feel grateful that Bob Marley and I were on the same planet at the same time. And: this beautiful, loving, transcendent work of art is by a bona fide ‘hero’, a hero who was awkward, angry, sometimes unpleasant, often destructively self-obsessed and who fathered at least eleven children in a life of compulsive unfaithfulness . . .

This piece is an attempt to make sense of a number of interweaving experiences from the last few weeks: researching more  about the life of Charles Coward; half-formed ideas springing from reading Beowulf and Victor Frankl; endless wrangling about the degree to which someone who writes can ever be truly honest and engulfing, seemingly intractable, feelings of profound yearning and regret. All these cognitive and emotional strands seem to point me back to childhood, to identity, to sex, to class, to myth, to what being a man- being a human being– means in 2011, what it meant back in the late ‘70s. And understanding all of this mess, it seems, means trying to understand my/our need for heroes.

My first hero was my grandfather, a working-class Londoner who’d lied about his age to get into the army in the First World War, a man who- disillusioned by the horrors he experienced- had become a founder member of the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1920. He was an uncomplaining, stoic, hard man who suffered from recurrent bouts of malaria originally contracted while fighting the Turks in Salonika. He was a man who, throughout our time together, pretended to support Arsenal, wound me up constantly about my love for Spurs (I only found out a couple of years ago he hated football!) and only ever got angry with me once: when I managed to throw a dart and embed it in his leg, having completely missed the dart-board he’d put up on a tree for me that bright, carefree, eight-year-old’s summer.

My grandfather presented me with a model of masculinity that was about stamina and self-containment and a hard, impenetrable shell: I suspect he’d hate all this navel-gazing, self-indulgent, poncey writing crap. But he also had a focused, altruistic, self-sacrificing sense of wanting to change the world for the better (surely a definition of heroism?) and, oddly (or perhaps not?), I still miss him, thirty-seven years on from his death. And I’ve just about forgiven him for pretending to be a bloody Gooner.

New heroes emerged as I wrestled with my sex-obsessed, needy/nerdy, bewildered, whirling, whoamIwhereamIgoing? adolescence: the two who still have some impact on me now are Paul Weller and Bruce Springsteen. I heard the first Jam album in (of all places) Guernsey and it set me on fire: raging, harsh/melodic, macho/sensitive, clumsy, self-confident, naive, politically-aware, Weller was writing songs that I would’ve written if I’d had the talent and the self-confidence. He WAS England in 1977 and he changed the way I related to myself, my class, my identity. He was the man I wanted to be, the flipside to my tentative, awkward, adolescent self-disdain. Springsteen, on the other hand, seemed to promise something bigger, more romantic, more spacious, more exotic: redemption, poetry, salvation, a future; as Weller offered a mirror and a fist in the face to the narrowness and closed-in repression of England, his hate’n’war energising and cathartic and scary, so Springsteen suggested alternatives, told me I could connect, could be greater than this, that the world was bigger. His America, his stories, took place in small towns full of losers that were pretty much like Enfield or Woking, but he was pulling out of there to win, he knew there was more at the end of the highway, he knew that, like me, he’d find The One, the woman who’d transport him, transform him, lift him up to the heavens . . .

I failed at the time to see, or engage with, the romance, the feminine, in Weller’s songs or the cynicism, irony and fear in Springsteen’s, but maybe that didn’t matter: they gave me templates, possibilities, told me I wasn’t alone, told me I could be better than I felt I was. They- and their characters- appeared to be heroes, standing up and out, brave, willing to be shot-at for what they believed in. They seemed deeply respectful of women (the word ‘hero’ itself comes, interestingly, from one meaning ‘protector’ or ‘defender’ and traditional male roles and values seem irretrievably bound up in it) and they were able to tread a path that was strong and ‘masculine’ but never overtly repressive or abusive. (It was fascinating to hear more than one straight man of a certain age on Robert Elms’ show a couple of weeks ago referring to Weller as ‘still looking good’: the homoerotic nature of hero-worship adds another layer to all this. In different ways, Springsteen and Weller both embody  late-20th Century archetypes of masculinity- a sexual confidence, a power allied with a sensitivity and reflexitivity- that I (and I suspect many men of my generation and background) both envy and- at a very deep level- find attractive.)

Springsteen and Weller were flawed, cracked, imperfect, of course. I remember sitting down one day in about ’78 with my parents and watching an interview with Weller on, I think, Nationwide (!) in which he was mumblingly incoherent, grumpy, unwilling to communicate beyond the everyday, the cliched. This figure I’d told everyone was A Great Man, a man who would bring the edifices of my parents’ conservative, rotten generation down, turned out to be embarrassingly trite and inarticulate. I felt, at least briefly, that Weller had let Our Side down, feelings compounded when reading a while later, in a sneering NME article, that Springsteen’s car had broken down and he’d been unable to fix it: he’d had to call out AAA to rescue him. It took a long time to forgive The Boss for that one.

I’m an adult, now, supposedly, but, as a white, heterosexual man, I sometimes feel fated to remain pathetically unsure, unfocused, permanently and precariously balanced between classes, between worlds, between selves, between ways of relating to myself, to other men and to women. Inevitably, part of my need for (and ambivalence towards) ‘heroes’ has always been wrapped up in those uncertainties and in the old Freudian mechanisms of projection, struggling to break free from both: when they- my heroes- have let me down, when they’ve proved themselves to be like me- a bit crap at life- I’ve hated it, wanted to strike out, demand an apology; I’ve felt an overwhelming, disproportionate sense of being betrayed. If they couldn’t transcend the ordinary, the prosaic, the day-to-day struggle to hear and be heard, how could I? I’ve needed those myths to make me feel things could be OK, to prevent myself feeling paralysed (one reason, I’m sure, why Weller broke-up the Jam, recognising we were loading him with all our own shit).

Reading about Victor Frankl the other day, I felt again, suddenly, that same, wounding betrayal: he was, it seems, ‘only’ in Auschwitz three days; he had undertaken work as a psychiatrist in the pre-war years that fitted perfectly with what the Nazis wanted from psychiatry- if he wasn’t an active collaborator, he was, it seems, at least only passively in opposition. Another wise old man had let me down. And nothing changes.

It’s been argued that projection can be ‘positive’ as well as ‘negative’: we create myths, mythical creatures, as a way of distancing ourselves and unconsciously reflecting on our own heroism, our own bravery and talent and altruism, just as we demonise ‘the other’ in order to avoid facing up to our own selfishness and madness and rage. Andrea Kuzsewski suggests that there’s a really close parallel between the ‘sociopath’ and the ‘hero’: fierce, uncompromising independence, rule-breaking, argumentativeness, risk-taking- it depends whether these traits are, ultimately, self-serving or altruistic. My guess, actually, if I’m honest, is that we’re both, often simultaneously: Weller and Springsteen and Coward and Frankl and Bob Marley and you and me can all be heroic, break the rules, take risks; we can all be responsible and make choices. But we fail so often to recognise either our heroism or that responsibility and none of us- none of us- is ever either ‘weak’ or a ‘hero’.

So now I’m not sure I have or need heroes anymore, but I recognise- with a degree of embarrassment- that I’m still trying to find one, to find someone who can teach me how to live. I won’t find that person in the old stories, though. Weller café-raged for a while with the Style Council but has spent the couple of decades since, securing his position in the mainstream: for all the occasional gem, for all his recent ‘experimentation’, he long ago accommodated the rules, the conventions, long ago settled for what is rather than what could be. Springsteen, meanwhile, has trudged through the horrors of ‘80’s over-production, ‘90s struggle and the American nightmare of 9/11 and its blood-soaked consequences and found a richer, darker, niche at the age of 60. He’s as unlike me as he ever was, but he’s become much more real, the myth still there in popular culture but no longer in my mind; as with Weller, I’d like to go for a drink with Springsteen, but I don’t want to be him, neither do I see him as some mystical, god-like exemplar: redemption no longer lies in worshipping rock stars. What I do want- maybe what I’ve always wanted- is a way of being a man in this world that has- effortlessly, integrally- Weller’s self-confidence and Springsteen’s sense of romance and possibility. And maybe I need now, having belatedly recognised their existence- having started to discover, finally, their real value and power- to explore other narratives altogether, recognise the real heroes: perhaps it’s time to take on board a little of the heroism of Billie Holliday or Nina Simone or Rachel North or Aung San Suu Kyi or Caroline Lucas or my Nan . . .

For the meaning of life differs from man to man, from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment (Viktor Frankl)

 Posted by at 12:01 am

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