Heroes must do more than entertain us

If men really want to know about pushing oneself to the limits, about physical pain and endurance, they could try giving birth
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The Independent Online
In 1911 Charlotte Perkins Gilman described what a hero must look like. "He may be cross-eyed, wide-eared, thick-necked, bandy-legged - what you please; but he must have a more or less protruding jaw".

What a glorious week it has been for determined jaws. They have jutted out at me from television screens and the front pages of every newspaper. While the only women currently deemed newsworthy are Baby Spice, John McCarthy's girlfriend and the despised Camilla Parker-Bowles, dare-devil businessmen, round-the-world yachtsmen and of course the man who is "bigger than God", the messiah himself, Kevin Keegan, are everywhere.

I realise that it is heresy these days to regard football as mere sport, rather than as an organised religion as well as the surest indicator of national self-worth, but then I'm just a girlie. Boy's own fantasies have not just dominated the news, they are the news. Men who choose to mess about with boats, balloons and balls are presented as the embodiment of all our hopes, as an inspiration to us all.

Let me play the bad fairy at the ball, then, and say that none of these guys are an inspiration to me. Sure, they may be good at what they do; they may take huge risks and live under considerable pressures. But heroes? Please. Richard Branson may be a popular figure for both the left and right. Someone should give him a proper job. He may be a brilliant self- publicist, but what did his ballooning enterprise actually represent apart from the triumph of private entrepreneurship?

Branson was not only prepared to risk his life but others, too. He will probably try it again. We are to be persuaded that he "is the last of the great British buccaneers". He needs adventure, we are told, and we need adventurers. We need to be reminded what individuals are capable of. We need these oddballs to attempt things that we would never dream of. Branson's personal courage reminds us that business isn't boring, but full of derring-do. This may help the self-image of a few "suits", but I'm afraid it does nothing for me.

Every weekend, people of all persuasions attach themselves to lines of elastic and throw themselves off cranes. They do it for the thrill, the adrenalin, the fun. No one describes bungee-jumping as heroic or as contributing to the national pride. No elements are being conquered, no lands explored, no books arise out of the spiritual journey it entails. Is this fundamentally any more daft than the exploits of a Ranulph Fiennes, who must invent increasingly pointless expeditions to put himself through?

Buccaneers, you see, are running out of things to buck. Everything has been discovered, circumnavigated, survived single-handedly. Their adventures are increasingly artificial, man-made if you like. There is little left for them to pit their minds and bodies against except ludicrous records that most of us care nothing about anyway.

The Guinness Book of Records is riveting when you are 10 years old, but surely its appeal lessens as one reaches middle age. If it doesn't - and for some strange reason, for a certain breed of men and the long-distance walker Ffyona Campbell this appears to be the case - then in order to prove one's uniqueness, one has to undertake a vastly expensive adventure.

If the outer world has already been conquered, then the inner world becomes the new frontier. Physical hardship combined with the ability to endure solitude becomes the new territory to be annexed. There may well be courageous activities involved, but they are inherently selfish ones, contributing little to the general culture.

Yet we continue to make a distinction between those who choose to risk their otherwise cosy lives and those who starve, who are tortured, whose everyday lives are full of horrendous challenges, as if heroism were only the property of those who can afford to make such choices.

Likewise, we assume that the stresses of the mega-successful are somehow greater than those of the anonymous failures. Stress, living in the spotlight, the trappings of fame itself are spoken of as the final test of a man. I don't doubt that Kevin Keegan was a good football manager or that he was under pressure, but he was well rewarded for it.

Was his stress greater than that of an inner-city schoolteacher, a junior doctor who has worked solidly for 36 hours, a lone mother worrying about how she will pay for her children's birthday presents? Is it a national tragedy when a man decides to quit a high-profile job "for the sake of his family", or should Keegan be more like Branson, who is happy to leave his to fly around the world in a balloon? Is Tony Bullimore, who thankfully was found alive, essentially any braver than a fireman who crawls into blazing buildings? And as many women have muttered to each other over the past few days, if men really want to know about pushing oneself to the limits, about physical pain and endurance, they could try giving birth.

Despite heroic efforts by the media, the other thing that is jarring about these action men is that they have basically failed. Branson's balloon came down; Bullimore's boat lost the race; Keegan had enough. Failure, however, is something that the prevalent mythology does not acknowledge. These men must immediately promise to have another go. The lexicon of boy's own adventure does not countenance failure. Nothing ventured, nothing gained translates into nothing gained, nothing learnt.

Some adventurers, however, are not just prepared to admit failure but to learn from it, even to explore it, for in exploring their relationships with themselves they are also exploring their relationships with others. When Robyn Davidson went to live for a year among the nomads of India, she ended up ill with TB and tapeworm, angry and frightened. She writes in her book Desert Places: "Everything I had done here was fraudulent and absurd ... And I would perpetuate this fraudulence by producing another useless artefact for western consumption, another bit of noise for a culture drowning in noise - an article for a glossy magazine with beautiful photos of beautiful India, beautiful noble Rabari, so that people could sit in the comfort of their homes or doctors' waiting-rooms and not see." Yet despite her experience "of a series of disconnected events, without shape or meaning" she expresses a desire to go back. "Because where I come from, life wasn't hard enough, or dangerous enough, to demand greatness of individuals."

Our privileged heroes might say the same, that they seek to find greatness for themselves by seeking danger. Others may applaud them for enriching our lives by risking theirs, but some of us must wonder if there aren't greater and profoundly more life-enhancing causes to die for than Richard Branson's ballooning ego.