Friday, 30 March 2012


WHAT MAKES A HERO ? Workshop delivered at Lommond Writer's Gathering 27/03/12

You probably already know this story know  but as writers I hope you’ll bear with me while I share it with you.
On the afternoon of January the 15th 2009 at 3.25, flight 1549 was leaving la Guardia New York bound for Charlotte North Carolina. At the controls was Captain Chelsey Sullenberger. He had been flying with US Airways for thirty years and in the next six minutes he would become a hero.

Three minutes into the flight, just south of the George Washington Bridge, the plane encountered a flock of Canada Geese.  Loud bangs were heard and there was an immediate and complete loss of thrust from both engines.

While his co-pilot initiated the engine start up procedure Sullenburger radioed La Guardia requesting permission for an emergency landing. Runways were cleared but moments later, Sullenberger, assessing the unpowered aircraft’s rate of descent and airspeed, realised this was now impossible and briefly requested an alternative landing at New Jersey but he quickly realised that this too was now beyond reach and radioed his intention to bring the plane down in the Hudson River.

There were 150 passengers on board and the plane, which was fully fuelled, was gliding without power over one of the most populated cities in the world.

Sullenberger gave instructions to ‘Brace for impact’ and the Airbus, which was travelling  at 150 mph, touched down on the water.  The force of the impact was sufficient to rip open cargo doors at the rear of the plane causing it to take on water rapidly. While river craft came to the rescue the cabin crew supervised the disembarkation of the passengers into life rafts and onto the wings. After the last of them were evacuated Sullenberger twice walked the length of the sinking plane to check that no one remained on board. He was the last to leave.

Not only did he demonstrate breathtaking technical skill in piloting the plane, he remained outwardly calm throughout. Furthermore he risked his life to ensure that everyone had got off safely and finally when he was interviewed he said this:

“Circumstance determined that it was this experienced crew that was scheduled to fly that particular flight on that particular day,” he said.

“And I know I can speak for the entire crew when I tell you we were simply doing the jobs we were trained to do.”

But he wasn’t made of stone. He  acknowledged that he had suffered from  sleeplessness and flashbacks in the weeks following the crash and in a CBS 60 Minutes interview, he was quoted as saying that the moments before the crash were "the worst sickening, pit-of-your-stomach, falling-through-the-floor feeling" that he had ever experienced.

For me Sullenberger is what heroes are made of.

Acts of heroism performed by so called ‘ordinary people’ are often  brief, isolated incidents representing  a ‘blip’ in the life of that person rather than its defining characteristic. By contrast  fictional heroes can depend on a random collision of unrelated events being the precursor to a continuing series of related ones in which they then become embroiled.

Herein lies the problem for the writer of fiction; while an incident like flight 1549 can inspire millions its brief nature and the continuing story of its ordinary central character won’t  necessarily become an international bestseller.  Even though Chelsey Sullenberger became an international hero for saving flight 1549 his own book, on Amazon, currently ranks at 200 422.

While the media helped make the legend of chelsey Sullenberger it could also have destroyed him if he’d made mistakes. This too can be a problem for the ordinary hero because the litigation culture we live in today combined with social media means that a single act can define that person for the rest of their life. It can also have consequences  for people’s willingness to intervene in general.

The Big Man and the fare dodger incident took place on a train filled with commuters travelling between Edinbergh and Perth. Film captured by another of the passengers on his mobile phone shows Alan Pollock forcibly ejecting Sam Main from the carriage after he refused to pay for a ticket. The incident sparked great controversy and both Pollock  and Main faced prosecution although all charges were later dropped. The youtube clip was watched an astonishing two million times even though the train was not out of control, there was no bomb ticking in a mysterious suitcase and all the bridges it would cross were intact. Its anybody’s guess how many times the story was actually read.

It was not strictly speaking an act of heroism but it was most certainly an example of someone demonstrating a willingness to act in difficult circumstances.


This dilemma of intervention  is central to the work of eminent Stanford Psychologist Philip Zimbardo. He believes we focus too much in our hero worship on extraordinary people and not enough on ordinary people taking extraordinary action even though the latter is much more typical of heroes than the former.

Zimbardo claims that the cultivation of what he calls ‘Heroic Imagination’ is crucial. This involves not only being constantly vigilant for circumstances requiring intervention but also imaging how we would react under those circumstances. In effect, this means mentally rehersing in order to develop the personal hardiness necessary to intervene and not to fear interpersonal conflict.

For Zimardo its about resisting the urge to rationalize inaction and to avoid developing justifications that recast evil deeds as acceptable. He notes that there may be only one situation in your life for your heroic imagination to take hold of you and if it doesn’t you may regret it for the rest of your life.

The fictional hero must have a suitable situation for repeating their heroism which is why there are so many detectives, soldiers, rescuers, secret agents and private investigators.

The fictional hero can wait for adventure to find them; the abandoned car with a brief case full of money, the body in the cupboard, or the murderer who leaves calling cards, which is why readers of fiction can take the hero’s intervention for granted.  However, writers of fiction, when describing the events which launch their hero into action, might want to ask themselves what goes through the mind of an ordinary person in the moments before they perform an act of heroism.

We are used to both real and fictional heroes down playing their involvement by claiming that ‘Anyone would have done the same.’ Or that they were ‘Only doing what anyone else would have done.’ Yet turning a deaf ear to the pleas of a young woman being attacked on the underground at night, or stepping over a prone human being in the street, are the stories we are more likely to accept as 'human nature'. We even condemn people who ignore the urgent needs of others when we are by no means sure we would have the courage to act ourselves.

Zimbardo says the hero needs a Heroic Imagination but the writer needs it too if they are going to describe heroic acts plausibly. In a market where, thanks to the self publishing revolution, there are a thousand new hero’s every week we have to try and understand what makes a real hero in order to better create a more compelling fictional one.  

QUESTION Whatever their motivation, when ordinary people perform acts of heroism they can inspire millions so why is it that all too often their books do not?

QUESTION If being a hero, whether fictional or real requires a willingness to act, is that willingness more important than the action they take?
QUESTION Would the ‘Big Man’ have done it again knowing that he would become the focus of so much controversy?

QUESTION To what extent does coverage of incidents like these influence people’s readiness to get involved?

QUESTION If Zimbardo’s theory of the heroic Imagination is valid was Walter Mitty potentially the greatest hero of American literature?

QUESTION What went through the mind of the Tank Man of Tianaman Square when he made the decision to step off the curb with his shopping bags and confront a convoy of tanks.

QUESTION How do you write something that can capture people’s attention the way ordinary heroes do?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

My Great Grandfather and the last cavalry charge

Hanging in the hall of my parents home is an old sepia photograph of my Great grandfather, Guy Gold, and his family. He is smiling proudly across at his youngest son Alistair and it’s an image that fits entirely with my dad’s recollection of a kindly, gentle old fellow who always had plenty of time for children.

Recently, when my brother took it out of its frame to scan it he found that written on the back was:

Shalford 18 June 1917. Guy Gold’s 40th birthday when home wounded at Battle of Arras.

I always knew he had fought in WW1 and that like many of the men who did, he was not a ‘career soldier’ but beyond this I’d never looked into the details of his military service. When I did I discovered that there was a very different side to this smiling family man. For a start the war he was home on leave from was not his first.

He had already fought in South Africa, 1899 -1902 where his territorial regiment the Essex Yeomanry Cavalry were employed to hunt down and engage mounted Boer Kommandos. This photo (left) shows him on his return in 1902. He was aged twenty five at the time.

From what I can tell he settled quietly back into civilian life, married Maude and started raising a family but when World War I broke out the Essex Yeomanry was mobilized and embarked for France to join the 3rd Cavalry Division.

In May 1915 they saw action at Frezenberg Ridge, where the regiment made a gallant bayonet charge and succeeded in driving the Germans from trenches which threatened the flank of the 27th Infantry Division. Five officers and sixty-five men were killed in the attack.

The Essex Yeomanry flag, or Guidon, has an impessive number of battle honours including those of Ypres, The Somme, Amiens and Loos but owing to the static nature of the Western Front the EY cavalry fought mainly in a dismounted Infantry role. It was not what they had trained for.

That all changed on the morning of 11th April 1917 when they played their part in the battle of Arras. They were tasked with securing the village of Monchy le Preux, a vital piece of high ground which was at this time held by German infantry. To do it they would have to ride across over two miles of exposed farmland laced with barbed wire and enemy trenches whilst under constant fire. This was what they had trained for.

An artillery officer described what he saw that morning in a letter home to his wife:

The most wonderful sight. It was a thing one could hardly believe to be real. It was a splendid clear open ground over a slight rise where I was standing at 9 a.m. I had passed them (Essex Yeomanry) on my way up and suddenly they passed me at the trot and as they got level they broke into the charge. They thundered past me with their swords and lances all in line. How they got through the fire I don’t know, gaps appeared in their lines and riderless horses were everywhere, but on they went and crashed into the village which they took and held.

Monchy le Preux does not have the name and notoriety of other battles but it was the last cavalry charge on the Western Front and Guy Gold, at the head of his squadron, came through it unscathed.

But, by the time the EY were relieved two days later 135 of the 600 men who had taken part in the charge were dead, many more were wounded and almost all the regiment’s horses, corralled in the town square, had been killed where they stood by a heavy artillery bombardment during which Guy was himself injured.

Major JD Parker in 1992 recalled the relief of Monchy le Preux:

The order rang out ‘Cavalrymen! Line up on the road.’ And the Yeomen sadly trudged to the rear past the place where the bodies of their horses lay – an image which stayed in the minds of those who took part long after the war had ended.

My Great Grandfather  was sent home on convalescent leave where the picture, that started this story for me, was taken. But this was not the end of his story. He returned to France the same year and fought at Cambrai and Villiers-Bretonneux, the EY’s last engagement before they were disbanded and broken up among several other cavalry units. After Germany’s surrender he once more returned home to Shalford, and his family.

When war broke out again in 1939 Guy Gold immediately presented himself for active duty but this time, despite his protests, he was politely told that his fighting days were over. He was 62.

However, the very real threat of invasion was already prompting urgent  calls for the formation of some sort of home defence force and amid much confusion the Local Defence Volunteers were raised. They were a regionalised force primarily comprised of men deemed too old for the regular army. Guy Gold was quickly appointed to command his local Brigade.

Unfortunately the Government was being very slow to equip the LDV meaning that in the early months they were forced to make do with whatever weapons they could scrounge or improvise, including  shotguns, Molotov cocktails and rifles appropriated from museums.

Their  tactics would have included observing from hedgerows, ringing the church bells to warn of invasion and making barricades of broken farm machinery and furniture.

At this time the same German Army, which  had already crushed France and Belgium in a matter of days was just the other side of the English Channel , a bare twenty five miles from Britain’s South Coast.I like to think of my Great Grandfather as being able to inspire calmness and resolve in those around him at this difficult time but even he had never faced such appalling odds. He must have known that if this army were to cross the Channel then the Shalford Local Defence Volunteers with their makeshift weapons and ramshackle barricades would have to face the full force of the Nazi Blitzkreig; elite paratroopers, devastating air power and fast moving armour.
The invasion never came but as its threat slowly receded my Great Grandfather’s worries did not. By 1942 three of his sons were serving overseas in a war that was far from over and in 1944 came the news that Rodney, my Grandfather, had been killed at the battle of Anzio.

Local historian John Hervey records:

I will never forget Armistice Sunday 1944. As the names of the men on the War Memorial in the church were read out and for the first time, that of Rodney, his son, I could not help looking across to him as he stood supported by his walking stick. His facial expression never moved, but for the first time, he did not go the George Inn for a post service drink with the British Legion members, going straight home instead.

He belonged to a generation that kept a stiff upper lip and didn’t talk about personal problems but it’s still hard to reconcile the image of the smiling man in the picture I know so well with that of the elite cavalryman whose skill with lance, sabre and small arms must have made him a terrifying enemy.

Then there’s the image of the aging veteran with his medals who, even after all the horrific things he’d seen and the comrades he’d lost, stood up to be counted one more time.

Most impressive of all was the man who could apparently resume his life in between these events. There’s still a lot I don’t know about him but I’m working on it and one day I hope that myself and my two boys, who are four and five, will visit Monchy le Preux.