Heroes of 2007: Our panel pick their inspirational people of the year

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The war on terror, global warming, gun crime... No wonder we're desperate to find old-fashioned heroes to cheer on

Heroism had a special connotation in 2007. It was not the preserve of the powerful and nobly born. It was ordinary people showing extraordinary courage. It was an airport baggage-handler stumbling across the global war on terror, a BBC reporter's embarrassed smile after four months of captivity, even, if you will, an orphan boy triumphing over evil in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Our soldiers displayed a democracy of courage in the face of chaotic violence. Leadership was no longer dictated by rank. Heroes are everyman or woman, and good citizenship has been elevated to heroism. In September, Jack Straw tried to rouse a dulled British spirit by encouraging "have-a-go heroes". There was a national twinge of shame after police community support officers watched a 10-year-old boy drown in a pond because they were not "trained in drowning incidents". A society wrapped in the duvet of health and safety legislation regarded its own milky weakness with distaste. Heroism in 2007 meant unexpected self-assertion. It was also instinctive rather than calculated.

As Gordon Brown came, at last, to power, he sought a definition of Britishness which was based on character rather than culture or race. He liked the word "grit", which was a British version of the universal quality of courage. "Grit" had an unshowy, decent, Presbyterian ring to it. It wasn't grandiose, it did not demand a public stage for its virtue, it was Brownite rather than Blairite. Brown had already written a book called Courage, choosing as examples Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Aung San Suu Kyi. All had to wait and suffer for justice. Brown described his heroes as "sustained altruists who devote long periods, sometimes ' their entire lives to principled causes". (Surely he himself could slip unnoticed into the pantheon? Room for one more?)

But the Prime Minister and author was not content with these heroes all had a sense of destiny about them. Brown's next book was called Britain's Everyday Heroes. This was a definition he could make his own. These were everyday folk with steadfast moral compasses. All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Brown sought and found good men and women doing something: tackling gangs or guns or promoting fair trade.

But these virtuous people lacked drama. So John Smeaton was the answer to Brown's political dreams. He was an honest blue-collar Scot with a script-writer's turn of phrase, and he displayed glorious grit. He was our version of Todd Beamer, the "Let's roll" hero on board United flight 93. Beamer fulfilled GK Chesterton's definition of courage as "almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live, taking the form of a readiness to die." It is the crucial difference between the suicide bomber and those who tackle them.

The ordinariness of John Smeaton's day on Saturday 30 June is an important part of the heroic narrative. The Glaswegian bag-handler was on a cigarette break between shifts when he heard screaming at the airport entrance and saw a car in flames. While others ran from the scene, Smeaton's impulse was to move towards the car to help. Then he saw a man get out of the car and attack the policemen. So he went to the policemen's aid and set about the man. "Me and the other folk were just trying to get the boot in," he said. And once the television cameras sought him out, he spoke for his country. "Glasgow doesnae accept this; if you come tae Glasgow, we'll set aboot ye." Since then, Smeaton has been the star of the Labour Party conference, the star of the Pride of Britain awards, the guest of America and the recipient of a Queen's Gallantry Medal. He said that being carted about everywhere made him irritable and out of sorts and he would like the whole thing to blow over. His deafness to the siren of television celebrity is an essential part of his heroism.

A fundamental definition of bravery is a willingness to selflessly risk your life. Our Armed Forces have shown astonishing feats of bravery, but it is only in the past few months that the public has been prepared to acknowledge them. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are unpopular and thus we preferred not to think about those who were fighting them. Residents near the army rehabilitation centre of Headley Court (where Lance Corporal Johnson Beharry, featured on page 19, was a patient) in Surrey opposed the conversion of a building into a place for soldiers' relatives to stay on the grounds that weeping women and wounded men would adversely affect house prices. Suddenly, we began to speak of the debt of the honour towards those dying and maimed in our name. Indeed, The Independent on Sunday campaigned for the restoration of the Military Covenant. A book published this year called In Foreign Fields: Heroes of Iraq and Afghanistan illustrates in laconic, first-person prose the Churchillian imperative that, "It's not enough that we do our best; sometimes we have to do what's required."

A small group received medals for gallantry at Buckingham Palace in May. Among them were Lieutenant Timothy Illingworth and Major Mark Hammond. Lieutenant Illingworth recalled leading the Afghan army in a fire fight with the Taliban in Helmand. "I finished my magazine, went to change it and that's when I noticed no one else was firing. I changed my magazine it was my seventh and last and turned round. And there was not a soul in sight, which concerned me slightly." Major Hammond was a Royal Marine Chinook pilot in Helmand, flying in medical teams to evacuate casualties. He was forced to abort one mission because the firing was too heavy to land at Musa Qala and he returned to base with his helicopter studded with bullet holes. He remembered: "We came off the cab and the medics were all sat down at the back. Their boss was a colonel he was pretty ashen-faced and I had a smoke with him. We were sucking down this smoke and I said: 'You realise we are going to go back?' He took just about the longest drag I've ever seen, stubbed it out and said: 'Yeah, I thought we might.'"

None can forget the heroism of Captain David Hicks, who died in August. The 26-year-old officer was mortally wounded by shrapnel at a patrol base tower in Helmand but refused morphine in order to keep a clear head. His father said of him: "He led from the front with the interests of his men his paramount concern. That to me is what real service is."

There is another kind of courage, which is extraordinary grace under pressure. When we measure heroism, it is against expectations of ourselves. What could we bear? What would it take to break us? The BBC journalist Alan Johnston, who was released on 4 July after four months of captivity by the Army of Islam in Gaza, could have walked from the pages of Brown's Everyday Heroes. He looked shy and uncomfortable with the attention, expressing a wish to "return to obscurity".

It is a heroism of character which was also observed in the extraordinary life and death of Jane Tomlinson, who walked 4,200 miles across America while every bone ached with cancer, yet whose smile was more powerful than radiation. Or in the gossamer beauty of Kate McCann. Like a Greek chorus, we wondered how much grief that pale, slight frame could sustain. The heroism awards to children given out by Sarah Brown are a tribute to optimism in adversity. We salute those whose lives are so much harder and bleaker than our own but who behave so much better than we do.

There is also the courage of conscience or conviction. We should remember Derek Pasquill, the Foreign Office servant charged under the Official Secrets Act for revealing, through a New Statesman journalist, the British acquiescence in illegal "extraordinary rendition" of US terror suspects and the Government policy of covert engagement with the extreme Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As a conventional patriot, I am usually suspicious of whistleblowers, but as the state becomes more powerful and authoritarian, I regard citizens such as Pasquill as wonderfully brave.

Of course, unwavering conviction can be bloodymindedness. Conrad Black believes he has the courage of the persecuted martyr but his opponents argue he is simply a crook. And while Michael Forbes, the fisherman who thwarted the plan of Donald Trump to build a golf course and spa in Aberdeenshire, may feel the warmth of virtue, many locals wanted to club him to death for stopping them from cashing in.

In this retrospective of heroism in 2007 I have not yet mentioned our sporting "heroes": the grit of the England rugby team in the World Cup final against South Africa; the pluck of Ricky Hatton against Floyd Mayweather. They did their best. Sadly, they did not do what was required.

The dislike of British history among the liberal establishment is partly a reflexive distaste for bloody acts in the name of nationalism. To modern sensibilities, heroism is more akin to suffering and victimhood. I once sat on a committee to choose heroines of the year and noted that all the women mentioned had experienced illness or misfortune. There is nothing heroic about suffering but, of course, one can respond to suffering heroically. We are no longer a deferential society and we are suspicious of heroism in high places. But we are not a utilitarian society and I do not believe we are mean spirited. We seek inspiration and we like it especially when it is close at hand. Everyday heroes are usually people we know. That, to me, is an optimistic thought. *

The journalist: Jon Snow on Alan Johnston

Jon Snow, 60, is the presenter of Channel 4 News and has won Royal Television Society awards for reporting in Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and El Salvador. Alan Johnston, 45, has been the BBC's correspondent in Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and the Gaza Strip. He was kidnapped by a group of Palestinian militants on 12 March 2007, and released nearly four months later on 4 July

Alan is heroic on lots of levels, not least because he's been so perceptive about how and why he survived being kidnapped. I went to a talk he gave and he's extraordinarily candid about the psychological processes he went through.

I met him for the first time recently when I chaired a session at the Royal Society of Arts where he spoke but prior to that, the last time I had any contact with him was when I was carrying his photograph, campaigning for his release.

He was effectively the only Western journalist in Gaza and was obviously a target. He was conscious of the threat and had moved about and changed addresses but he didn't really think it would happen to him.

It is essential the places around which the world's tensions circle should be reported. Obviously Gaza is one of the places that challenges journalists most severely. The very fact that he withstood it for three years, virtually alone, is itself heroic. Not that he considers himself a hero; he sees himself as a jobbing journalist whose job is to get the truth. Rebecca Armstrong

'Kidnapped and Other Dispatches' by Alan Johnston (Profile Books, 7.99) is out now

The ethical fashionista: Safia Minney on Bora Aksu

Safia Minney, 43, is the founder of ethical-clothing company People Tree. Bora Aksu, 37, is a fashion designer

Bora is a very gifted Turkish designer who I first worked with on a Vogue Japan designer collaboration this spring. He is practical and creative and able to take on board the limitations of working with small-scale Fairtrade producers. People Tree works in villages with hand-weaving communities and embroidery groups and it was completely new for him.

It can be quite problematic 100-per-cent hand-produced fabrics have their quirks in terms of how they'll take colour and the shape of the fabric. Because they're hand-woven the entire process takes a lot longer than usual. Bora and I are both enthusiastic about hand skills such as beading and embroidery, which we see as the antidote to fast-fashion. And while most designers wait until the last possible moment to finalise a collection, Bora was much more flexible in the way he worked.

Fairtrade fashion is about working with these small-scale groups and working out how we can incorporate their traditional skills. All designers are creative, but when you're running a fairly small team it's extremely difficult to give the time and energy to a Fairtrade project. It's very generous of Bora and people like him to make a contribution in terms of creating livelihoods for organic cotton farmers and hand-weavers. We are now working together on People Tree's spring/summer and autumn/winter 2008 collections. Sophie Morris

The politician: Norman Tebbit on Bob Marshall-Andrews

Norman Tebbit, 78, is a former member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet, and chairman of the Conservative Party. He is a member of the House of Lords. Bob Marshall-Andrews QC, 63, is Labour MP for Medway

In many ways Bob is the Tam Dalyell of his generation. It's easy to be a good parliamentarian when you are in opposition; it's something else when you are in government. Bob understands how the House works and that it is necessary for the House to assert itself against the executive.

It is the chamber of the House of Commons on which all else rests, yet in recent years it has become somewhat moribund. Bob is one of the few members who creates interest there. He turns up and argues a point of principle with great skill, wit and passion. He spoke brilliantly after the Queen's Speech last month. At one point, after making a comment about the 90-day limit for detaining terror suspects without trial, he added, "While I am on my feet, may I tell the Home Secretary that I said earlier that she was the human and attractive face of the Home Office? She was not here at the time, so I must add that I was making a comparison with her predecessors."

A blunt talker who also does a lot of speaking for charities, this makes him a political hero in my book. Simon Usborne

The environmentalist: Rebecca Hosking on Matt Prescott

Rebecca Hosking, 34, kick-started the anti-plastic bag campaign by persuading her home town of Modbury, Devon, to stop using plastic bags. Matt Prescott, 35, is the founder of "Ban the Bulb", which aims to get the Government to ban the traditional incandescent light bulb

It is Matt's determination that makes him a hero. Before Matt started "Ban the Bulb" there were all these governmental policies talking about 40-year plans. Rather than talking about using more efficient products they were just talking about changing over from coal to nuclear or wind, without actually reducing the amount of electricity we're using.

Matt came in and just said, "Let's look at the appliances we're using." And just as plastic bags represent for me throwaway packaging, the light bulb for Matt is throwing away energy. He approached Tesco and the four or five major light bulb manufacturers and told them how much energy is being lost from incandescent bulbs and made them agree to find something that's more energy-efficient.

He's a young guy I've got huge respect for him to stand up and be that bold. I've got huge respect for anyone dealing with global warming, because I always think if carbon was great big black blocks coming out of houses or coming out of cars, more people would actually do something about it. RA

The children's champion: Camila Batmanghelidjh on the Rt Revd Rowan Williams

Camila Batmanghelidjh, 44, is the founder of the charity Kids Company, which works with children whose parents are unable to adequately care for them. Rowan Williams, 57, is the Archbishop of Canterbury

The Archbishop of Canterbury gave a very moving address at "No Bullshit: What Matters to Every Child", the conference we held in October. He articulated the truth of how vulnerable children are, how childhood needs to be honoured and protected, that this is our responsibility.

I know how bad the situation is for children but as much as I can say, it has more of an effect if it comes from someone on the outside. When someone such as the Archbishop who has no vested interest in the charity and who is independent and thoughtful comes forward it makes a great difference.

I first met him when he visited the exhibition Shrinking Childhoods at Tate Modern a couple of years ago. He showed genuine concern for the kids and they've never forgotten him. It's quite charming, really: the Archbishop versus the urban thugs. He is unique because he represents morality and Christianity, yet he is extraordinarily non-judgemental.

All the agencies that are supposed to step up to protect vulnerable children in this society end up not being able to do a very good job because they don't have the resources and they don't dare to speak up. The Archbishop of Canterbury is speaking up. I think he's a prime example of how morality at its purest and best is about compassion. SM

The prize fighter: Clare Balding on Joe Calzaghe

Clare Balding, 36, is a former jockey and is now a BBC sports presenter and journalist. Joe Calzaghe, 35, is the world undisputed super-middleweight boxing champion and won this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year

I first saw Joe fight 10 years ago as a reporter in Sheffield. He beat Chris Eubank to become WBO super middleweight champion. I had never been to a boxing match before and asked my friend what I should wear. He told me to go in something I didn't mind getting bloody, so I wasn't looking forward to it. But I was so impressed with Joe's fitness, bravery and speed. He was extraordinary and, 10 years on, he still has a beautiful face you've got to be good to achieve that.

I've met Joe a couple of times and love his general attitude to life. He still lives in Wales, his dad is still his trainer, and his friends are the same. He's just an ordinary, well, Joe. I think it's especially hard to keep your feet on the ground as a boxer. They're offered a lot of money and, while jockeys might do six races a day every day of the year, boxers might only have two fights a year. You have to be incredibly disciplined to peak when you're competing so infrequently.

It was extraordinary when he beat Mikkel Kessler this year. What's amazing is that he seems to be becoming a cleverer fighter. He can't possibly be as quick as he was when he was younger, but he's cannier and clearly stronger.

I was so pleased he won the sports personality award. Last year even Zara Phillips, who won, thought Calzaghe would walk away with it. He came fourth and this year he spent the night in Las Vegas, where he'd gone to support Ricky Hatton, as he thought he had no chance. It's not as if he had mounted some big press campaign to get votes he earned it. SU

The rebel: Ken Loach on Alan Thornett

Ken Loach, 71, is a film-maker. Alan Thornett, 70, is a left-wing political activist, journalist and writer

I met Alan in the 1960s at political meetings; he stands for those many people who struggle to keep the idea alive that society can be organised in another way socially, industrially and politically. He was a senior steward at the Cowley car plant through the 1970s, and like many union members, didn't think his union leadership represented the workers' interests. He was victimised for his views and subsequently lost his job.

He wrote about that period and has this ability to be clear and articulate on the issues he cares about. He contributed to a documentary series I worked on in the 1980s called Questions of Leadership, about the willingness of rank-and-file union members to take on the government. It was never broadcast because it was deemed, wrongly, to be defamatory.

Since then Alan has been speaking and writing really persuasively in left-wing newspapers. There's a whole other world that runs parallel to the mass media, a real political alternative, and Alan is prominent in that world; he is also senior in the Respect Renewal party. Alan has battled illness over the past few years, yet he is finding renewed energy in his work as a Marxist and a Socialist. Mike Higgins

The kings of green cuisine: Angela Hartnett on James Grainger-Smith and Arthur Potts

Chef Angela Hartnett, 38, is a protge of Gordon Ramsay and member of the Slow Food movement. Jamie Grainger-Smith, 36, and Arthur Potts, 36, are the co-owners of eco-friendly restaurant Acorn House

I'm interested in how food is moving forward in this country and Jamie and Arthur are very user-friendly about food. That might sound ridiculous, but their selling point is using seasonal produce and they are London's first eco-friendly restaurant. They are driven by simplicity and serve very good basic food.

I first went there four or five months ago on a recommendation. Arthur Potts obviously has his pedigree he's done his training at Kensington Place and The River Caf but it's the sort of place I know I could easily take my nephews, who are five and three. At Acorn House they go out of their way to help you. It's very pro-customer and to me that's how it should be. If you're running a restaurant it should be as if you've invited people to your house.

People talk about shopping locally but there are very few high streets with butchers and greengrocers, and some of the lovely farmers' markets are hideously expensive. These guys are passionate about what they do and while some other restaurants have similar menus, it's their whole ethos of sustainability that really runs the place. SM

The life-saver: Sir Magdi Yacoub on Dr Gavin Wright

Professor Sir Magdi Yacoub, 72, is a retired heart surgeon, and founder patron of Chain of Hope, which helps those in the developing world gain access to surgery. Dr Gavin Wright, 52, is consultant anaesthetist at the Royal Brompton & Harefield NHS Trust, and a director of Chain of Hope

I first became aware of Gavin's work 12 years ago, when he started working with Chain of Hope. From day one, he went on missions and displayed his many exceptional qualities. He is a natural-born anaesthetist. His father was one and so is his sister it's almost as if it is in his genes.

There was a particular mission in Jamaica some years ago, where a young man was in the terminal stages of heart failure. Gavin didn't hesitate to try to resuscitate the kid, who went on to have a huge operation to replace his valves. The child did very well, which was nothing short of miraculous, and we couldn't have saved him without Gavin.

This year we were in Mozambique, where we looked after a lot of sick children. Gavin had a partial detachment of the retina and was blind in one eye overnight. Nobody could help and we were all worried about him, but Gavin worked through the night, caring for the children. He had laser surgery on his return and, thankfully, has recovered well.

It wasn't the first time we have worried about Gavin's own health. He is very unassuming and works in silence. We will arrive somewhere after flying all day, and Gavin will work for free all night. Sometimes he looks so sick, but he never complains and never gives up.

He has a very sharp mind and is very inventive. He has pioneered a way of bringing round very sick children very quickly after major surgery. People from all over the world come to learn his technique, which he used in Mozambique. He gives a certain dose of a certain anaesthetic so that the child isn't deeply anaesthetised. Then, the minute we finish closing the skin, he wakes up the child, who feels no pain. Under normal conditions we would keep them on a ventilator for up to two days. This way we can treat many more children on a mission, using less equipment.

Gavin never seeks credit but I think we probably haven't paid attention to all the heroic things he does. He is simply one of the most impressive people I have come across. SU

The human-rights activist: Shami Chakrabarti on Maya Evans

Shami Chakrabarti, 38, is the director of the civil-rights lobby group Liberty. Maya Evans, 27, is an anti-war campaigner. She was arrested in 2005 for reading out the names of the soldiers who have died in Iraq by the Cenotaph war memorial in London without permission to protest

Maya has become a national icon for the importance of "people protests" in authoritarian times and won a Liberty award for human rights this year. She is perfect in this role because she is peaceful, articulate, brave and resolute. She's not a professional campaigner or paid politician, but a vegan cook from Hastings who has successfully protested against one of the most iconic authoritarian laws of the Blair years: the ban on protesting in and around Parliament Square without prior police permission.

Maya did ask the police for permission, she just didn't fill out the requisite form. She did everything possible to demonstrate how reasonable she is and to highlight how bad the law is. Maya is a concerned citizen who actually saw an injustice and put herself on the line in order to challenge it.

The Brown government has this year been making noises about revisiting that law. We've yet to see it come good on that, but I've no doubt that when that law is amended or appealed it will have a great deal to do with Maya Evans. SM

The action man: John Smeaton on Ally McCoist

John Smeaton, 31, is a baggage-handler at Glasgow International Airport. He helped prevent an attack on Glasgow International Airport in June 2007. Alistair "Ally" Murdoch McCoist MBE, 45, is a former professional football player and now assistant manager at Rangers FC

Ally was the first footballer I followed when I was a boy and I've always thought he was a great player. He was only young when he first started playing for Rangers but he came to prominence very quickly. When I was growing up, he was a star he was banging goals in left, right and centre. Ever since then he's been an absolute hero of mine.

I grew up with football it's always been a part of my and my family's life. Ally is a Glasgow legend and he's Rangers' top goal-scorer of all time but he's also such a likeable person and his character shines through in whatever he does. I met him once at Ibrox and he was so nice. We had a wee chat and he gave me a pat on the back. He's a true gentleman.

It's been a big year for him because he became assistant manager at Rangers in January. It's great to have him back; he picked us right up when we were in the doldrums. Since coming back to the club, he's had such a good influence on the entire squad. After all, he's won the Golden Boot [awarded to Europe's top scorer] twice, he's done well in his television career the guy's a winner. He's a great human being and he's a true sporting hero. RA

The arms-trade warriors: Mark Thomas on Nicholas Hildyard and Symon Hill

Mark Thomas, 44, is a comedian and political activist. Nicholas Hildyard, 52, is a founder of The Corner House, a group focusing on human rights and the environment. Symon Hill, 30, works for Campaign Against Arms Trade. Both are members of Control BAE

Nick and Symon represent organisations full of heroic people doing brilliant work. And, this year, the things they have been campaigning for so tirelessly are starting to bear fruit. Take the Defence Export Services Organisation (DESO). Since 1966 it has sought to promote the British arms industry abroad. But it works inside the Ministry of Defence and is headed by an arms industry executive. There's a conflict of interest and the amazing thing is that, after years of campaigning by Symon and others, Gordon Brown has now announced that DESO will close.

Another thing Nick and Symon have been very active in is bringing a court case against the Serious Fraud Office. When Blair put pressure on the Serious Fraud Office to shut down the investigation into allegations of bribery between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia to secure deals, Corner House and CAAT turned round and said, no, we're going to fight you on this, because everybody should be equal before the law. SU

The carer: Johnson Beharry on Pam Wells

Johnson Beharry, 28, is a soldier who was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2005 after sustaining serious head injuries while saving the lives of members of his unit in Iraq in 2004. Pam Wells is a social worker at Headley Court, the government rehab centre, where Beharry was treated

I met Pam in 2004 after I'd had my operation for a brain injury. I had been in a coma for about two weeks and she was appointed to support me throughout the recovery process. She covers everything in the field of social work. For instance, I had to see a psychotherapist, a chiropractor and a masseuse, and I was paying for it myself. Pam told me I didn't have to pay the MoD would cover it. She got in touch with the right people and sorted it out for me. Without that treatment I wouldn't be in the state I am today.

She knows how to speak to people and how to communicate with patients. She tells you exactly what's going to happen and gives you hope that things will be positive. She's also very honest. I think of her more as a friend now because she does so much for me. She goes all out to try to achieve what she thinks will be right for me.

And she hasn't stopped, even though I have left Headley Court. She doesn't have to help me but she still calls people and tries to put things in place for me. I know she still goes that extra mile for many other soldiers today.

I think she deserves much more credit for the job she does, because I'm speaking on my own behalf, but so many soldiers would agree that what she does is amazing. SU

The drugs campaigners: Alexander Masters on Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt

Alexander Masters, 42, is an author-screenwriter who works with the homeless. Andria Efthimiou-Mordaunt, 47, is a campaigner for the health and human rights of injectors affected by HIV and the founder of the John Mordaunt Trust

I first met Andria at a meeting in Cambridge years ago. I was impressed from the start because she was so passionate. And her expertise in her field harm reduction for heroin addicts is unrivalled. She has extraordinary dedication and refuses to back down. She's not pig-headed but will keep arguing her corner until she convinces her audience they shouldn't be so awful to people just because they are addicted to drugs.

She deserves recognition for the fact that she has kept going on behalf of so many people who don't have a voice and who others don't want to think about. She shouts and screams and makes a fuss to make countries think about it. She has had an international effect. We need thousands of people like her she is an inspiration. * RA

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