Could we be heroes?


Freeze frame taken from from video interview, ...
Image via Wikipedia

I went to see Tom Crean – Antarctic Explorer at the Everyman last night.

It is a piece like no other I have seen; at once powerful, uplifting, cosy, tragic, and utterly, utterly human.

Aidan Dooley’s self-penned one man play is a real masterpiece,  and the performance is phenomenal. I think there must be times Dooley actually believes he is Crean.

But it was the story he told more than the way in which he told it, that really grabbed me. A real story of heroism, fortitude and sacrifice all with the aim of… what, exactly?

Having never understood the “because it was there” argument, I’m not a natural explorer. But I am amazed by those who are.

The idea of heroism doesn’t seem to carry over into the modern world. It’s a little bit… politically incorrect?

Tom Crean’s story reminded me of some people I interviewed in my previous job in the Galway Independent, such as the amazing Commander Bill King. He’s my all-time favourite interviewee, and he has just reached 100 years old. He lives in Oranmore Castle, Co Galway, but that is probably the least interesting fact about him.

When I met him, he was 97, and still dashing. Even twenty years earlier, in his late 70s, he must have been an incredibly attractive man. He was well aware of it too – during our interview he flirted like mad, and told me some dirty limericks. His daughter, Leonie, a lovely woman with a brisk manner, rolled her eyes in the background; she’s well used to it! He’s a character in the truest sense of the world – he belongs in a tale of swashbuckling derring-do, or an old film, and not living in a modern Irish town (albeit in a castle) behind a big ugly development.

Commander King was the oldest sailor to circumnavigate the world solo, at the age of 58, in 1970. He was also the first person to circumnavigate the earth south of the inhabited world – in that famed Southern Ocean Crean got to know so well, where the swells reach 50 or 60 foot and the nearest land mass is the Antarctic. While he travelled, he read the Koran, the New Testament, and books about Buddhism.

As well as being a ‘real man’, courageous, to the point of foolhardiness, and politically incorrect to the point of a Mad Men protagonist, you see, he was also a ‘new man’. Commander King grew an organic garden to help with his family’s asthma, wrote books with his wife, and, when I met him, had just participated in a tree-planting ceremony to commemorate the memory of a Japanese officer whose submarine he torpedoed in WWII.

I met other sailors who ‘took a notion’ and sailed the Atlantic, or around Ireland solo, or, in one case, around the Arctic.

Mick Brogan, a mild-mannered GP, originally from Kinvara, was part of the first group to circumnavigate the Arctic East to West, in a trip involving 24 hour daylight, an impromptu early-morning céilí in a village in Greenland where the local musicians, who’d never travelled, knew Irish folk tunes, an ice-breaking boat, bribes for Russian security services, and a shotgun purchased from an Inuit on the way in case they encountered any rogue polar bears.

I grew up with my Dad travelling the world as a Merchant Navy officer.

He would return with tales of pet monkeys on board ship; seeing a man cut in half by a rope while loading in Korea; delivering oil during the Gulf War for ‘danger money’.

He had a sheepskin coat he bought for a song in New Zealand in 1977, and suits made for him by tailors in India (there was something of the days of the Raj about it all – he worked for BP, and I suppose Empire was not long lost). When I played dress-up as a child my friends and I used his dress uniform as costumes.

Now retired, he still lugs a beautiful, slightly battered and extremely unwieldy leather suitcase on family holidays. The wheels (a new departure in the 1970s, when it must have cost a fortune) don’t really work, but he refuses to part with it. I suppose like every girl with her dad, he’s always been my hero.

Interviewing those men, who’ll casually tell you about the time they stared death in the face in a submarine battle, or bribed Russian officials with whiskey to cross a border made of ice, or, like Tom Crean, went to the very edge of the world “because it was there”, is an insight into a world that doesn’t quite feel real.

Stories are why I became a journalist and the stories these travellers, these heroes, have to tell, are like no stories we will ever know in our contented quotidian. The danger of what they were doing – even my Dad delivering oil under fire – should be horrifying, but it is intoxicating.

The human spirit survives. You can see that in the pictures from Japan, or Haiti, or any of the places where terrible things happen and people have great danger thrust on them.

But to go looking for that danger? Usually, like my Granny, I’m apt to cluck and say they’d be better off at home in their beds.

But the rest of me is swept up in the thrill of it, the danger of it, the downright romance of men who take on these feats just because they can.

It’s not politically correct in the slightest.

But with political correctness gone mad, I have to wonder, whether these heroes are yesterday’s men, and that type of heroism is a historical concept.

What about our generation? Could we be heroes?

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