Wear leather and carry a big knife…

I’ve always felt that there is the need for a hero, someone who acts altruistically, someone to look up to. I’m not talking exclusively Superhero here, a hero doesn’t have to be “Super” and not someone to whom we can all abdicate our own responsibilities but a figure who leads by showing a good example and doing the right thing. Someone you can aspire to be like.

I need a hero.

I suppose in a way, religion is a bit like that, it showcases noble examples but also provides judicious warnings of what may happen if the edicts and diktats aren’t followed. And that’s where heroes score over religion; heroes don’t lay down the law, they act according to some in-built moral compass but one accessible to all. Read a book with a hero in the lead role and it makes you feel good. Watch a film where the baddies get their comeuppance curtesy of a hero and the same applies, you come away with a good feeling.

The first hero whose morals and mores I can remember wanting to aspire to was Kal-El, son of Jor-El, better known as Superman. The local newsagents shop stocked Superman comics, real American comics to-boot. I remember peeling off the British price labels to reveal American prices underneath; It seemed very exotic seeing a figure ending in “¢”. Almost every week a sizable chunk of my half-a-crown pocket money was spent on Superman comics, I lapped them up. Needless to say I don’t have any of them now which is a bit of a pity as they may have been worth something, well, something more than the cover price all these years down the line.

I remember I was reduced to tears when one issue of the magazine contained a story in which Lex Luthor, one of Superman’s arch enemies, managed to kill the supposedly invulnerable super hero with a green kryptonite ray gun device. There was an introduction to the story in which the editors went to lengths to stress that this story was only “imaginary”, a “what if…” Crikey! Did that mean that the others were true?

As a young kid I remember being impressed with the language used in the comics, graphic novels they’d be nowadays I suppose but let’s not quibble over semantics. I well recall that often a character in one of the stories would say of some crestfallen villain; “How ironic, blah, blah, blah.” or maybe, “Blah, blah, blah, how ironic.”

It was many years before I fully understood what ironic meant, I always supposed it to be something to do with iron, Superman being the Man of Steel and I never thought to ask or otherwise clarify exactly what ironic meant. Desperately trying to think of something anecdotal here so that I can then write; “…how ironic.” But nothing is springing to mind, ah well, maybe in time.

And here’s the thing, even as a young boy, I knew Superman wasn’t real, I knew that were I ever in trouble nobody wearing a colourful cape and tights would swoop down out of the sky to save me. It was the suspension of disbelief, the subscription to the fantastic that allowed me to revel in the scenarios where my hero bested his foes and carried the day.

Wear leather.

After Superman and indeed for some time running concurrently with the Man of Steel, was Tarzan. Oh my word, how I aspired to be like Tarzan wearing only a loin cloth and carrying nothing but a big knife. My Tarzan was Ron Ely of the 1960s TV series, even the title music was good as I recall. I suppose I’ll have to try to find it on YouTube now just to make sure. At this time my father was a taxi driver, no, more than that, he ran his own taxi firm, Steel’s Taxis. Ah, that was great at school, someone would enquire of me: “Tony, what does your dad do?” and before I had time to marshal my thoughts and proffer an explanation I’d get, “Steals Taxis”.

After a while I found it futile to then explain that our surname was spelt differently. Anyway, where was I? Ah, yes, Dad had two or three real chamois leathers which were used for final cleaning and polishing of the cars. I often eyed these enviously thinking that somehow I could fashion a loin cloth suitable for a young lad living in 1960s commuter-belt Hertfordshire.

One summer I had saved enough of my half a crown a week pocket money to buy a doll; an “action figure” if you will. I couldn’t afford or more likely wasn’t patient enough to save up the price of an actual “Action Man”, I bought the cheaper alternative, “G.I. Joe”. My dad almost went nuts, “You’ve bought a doll?” he asked incredulously. Luckily Mum was a bit more relaxed and dare I say, progressive about the whole boys with dolls thing going on there. Now I could join-in the play with other friends who had action figures and more importantly all the accessories which went with them but it wasn’t long before I’d stripped my G. I. Joe of his uniform and clad him in a facsimile Tarzan loin cloth, swinging him on lengths of string from the bedroom window. Yeah, he had a uniform, uniforms probably; utensils and accessories for his gripping hands but I was happiest when he was pretending to be Tarzan.

Historical note: G.I. Joe was the original American action figure toy; Action Man was the licenced UK version. ‘Bobby’s’, the shop I bought my doll from had both versions and Action Man was the more expensive.

F.A.B.

And talking of action figures, the one I really coveted but boy were they expensive, as I recall, was the “Thunderbirds” Virgil Tracy one. Ah, yes, another hero. Virgil Tracy wasn’t flash and fast like his brother Scott who flew the sleek Thunderbird 1 craft. Virgil flew a lumbering giant of a craft, Thunderbird 2. Virgil always seemed relaxed, well, most of the time. Virgil played piano, Virgil was cool. Yes, Virgil was my favourite Thunderbirds character but I think that the operation as a whole was my hero. Can an organisation vie for hero status? Maybe it’s obvious now with the benefit of hindsight and all the intervening years of experience but International Rescue only worked because of the teamwork, everyone doing their part and if that’s not setting a good example I don’t know what is.

For a while I was a secret agent for the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement, oh yes, I was a Boy from U.N.C.L.E. I had the spy case, a toy briefcase containing a plastic gun, a pen with invisible ink for writing secret messages, many “secret” cavities for hiding things and a pair of U.N.C.L.E badges, No. 2 and No. 11. There must have been more items but blessed if I can remember them now, but anyway Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin set for me a good example, or so I thought.

Then there was a sort of anti-hero, a man ostensibly outside the law, vilified by his peers, almost a fugitive living on the outskirts of society. No, not David Janssen in “The Fugitive” but Chuck Connors in “Branded”. I’ve got to say that Branded was, back in the day, one of my all-time favourite TV series and what a theme tune, even now I can remember the opening sequence and the words of the song:

All but one man died
There at Bitter Creek
And they said he ran away…

Chuck Connors playing Jason McCord, a disgraced, through no fault of his own, US Army cavalry captain, dishonourably discharged from the service and fighting to clear his name. Character building stuff I can tell you.

And then, then came a double act, maybe a triple act, sometimes a quadruple act; Jim, Spock, Bones and Scotty, boldly going hither and yon, snogging women, starting fights and generally being laddish. Good examples? You bet, because there was more often than not a justification and sometimes, to get the best result for all you have to be a bit self-centred or go off on one. Kirk had enormous power at his disposal, and he was not afraid to use it if the situation dictated. And yes, this week’s alien race would come along and suddenly the Enterprise was bereft of engines/shields/weaponry but our heroes and they were my heroes, always managed to carry the day

And what about the women, the heroines? Maybe it’s a generational thing, child of the times etc. but as a child I don’t recall having any female heroes; it’s not that I didn’t like the idea of a female hero I just don’t think there were many to choose from. Supergirl was there of course but, and again maybe this is because of the prevailing mores of the time, she seemed just a minor character next to her cousin.

As an older person of course your outlook tends to shift, not that you forget about your earlier heroes, oh no, they remain but your perspective is different. In the early 2000s I was, still am, quite a fan of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. No, no, no, nothing to do with ogling young women per se but rather the conflicts and choices of being a young woman charged with slaying vampires and for vampires read any of the thousand natural evils that flesh is heir to.

I recently watched the new (2017) Wonder Woman film and I have to say, I really enjoyed it; the character, trying to do the right thing. I am aware of course of the late 1970s TV series of Wonder Woman and being a young man in his late teens back then I was more than taken by the womanly wiles of Lynda Carter who played the title role but the stories themselves didn’t really engage me. This new film however with its in-filled back-story did engage me and I’m so glad that the producers didn’t try to emulate the buxom charm of the TV series.

Doctor Who?

Ah yes, Running through all of this has been The Doctor. I remember, quite literally hiding, behind a chair, not a sofa, at my grandparents’ house in the early 1960s. The Doctor was William Hartnell back then. Possibly my favourite incarnation of The Doctor was that portrayed by Patrick Troughton, possibly, although Tom Baker’s interpretation also resonated with me, “Would you like a jelly baby?” But actors aside, The Doctor himself, possessed of immeasurable capabilities (so we are led to believe) but always being thwarted by rules and conventions and trying not to screw-up the space-time continuum, especially the time bit, by doing what his hearts felt was right.

And now, The Doctor is a woman and do you know what? It matters not one jot to me, The Doctor is still The Doctor. Always finding a way to win, to defeat the evil and by doing so to leave you and me, the onlookers, with an optimistic and dare I say, feel-good feeling.

There you are then, heroes, not flesh and blood heroes but role models who wouldn’t let you down by being fallible and “too real”.

Poppycock and codswallop? No, I don’t think so. I firmly believe that reading about and watching the exploits of these characters helped to form the person who I am now. There were of course myriad other influences; my parents and grandparents being chief amongst them but they were real people, not heroes and I don’t mean to demean them by saying that they were not heroes. When you are growing-up your parents are just there, part of your ordinary life and it’s not until many years later that you realise what they did for you.

And even now, as I’m about to enter my sixth decade I still feel a need for heroes, for a feel-good rapscallion, a loose cannon with a good heart, be it a character in a book or a film, someone who you can say of; “Yeah, you did that right.”

Carry a big knife.

Now I’m not advocating that people should carry knives, unless you are Tarzan or possibly Mick “Crocodile” Dundee. There is far too much knife crime we are always being told, knife amnesties are organised and the TV news shows great piles of surrendered knives, a lot of them always seem to be huge and impractical.
Don’t carry knives.
Me? I’ve always carried a knife, a small one, for a long as I can remember. It’s part of getting dressed. Socks, pants, t-shirt, jeans, keys, wallet, knife and I think I can blame this all squarely on Tarzan. I realised fairly early on that I couldn’t, never mind couldn’t, wouldn’t be allowed to have and carry a big knife like Tarzan so I started carrying a small one. It was a fruit knife; the blade was reversible in the handle. To use it you had to pull the blade out, turn it around and slot it back into the handle. Sharpening pencils, cutting pork pies, whittling pieces of wood all achievable with this small knife and I never stabbed anybody. After many years of good use the handle broke. These days I carry a Swiss Army knife, the small one, 1½” blade, scissors, screwdriver/file, tweezers and toothpick. Toothpick? Whoever thought of that one was certainly grasping at straws. And I’m very pleased to say that I still haven’t stabbed anyone, a feat I put down to having grown up with people who might have been tempted to unleash their powers but knew when it wasn’t the right thing to do.
Heroes.

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