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What makes a modern hero?

4 January 08 11:53 GMT
By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Scott and Shackleton were great heroes of the age of empire and exploration. But a new book charting shifting attitudes towards them might help tell us how our view of heroes has changed.

Once upon a time Robert Falcon Scott was the epitome of a Boy's Own hero. Who could fail to be mesmerised by the diaries of a man who, swept by blizzards and starving, was able to look death in the eye and accept it with equanimity?

To take on a death-defying quest was admirable, but to die with dignity on such a quest was the mark of a hero in early 20th Century Britain. Despite Scott's apparent double failure, being pipped to the South Pole by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen and the death of his men, there was something both poignant and glorious about him.

But the past decades have not been kind to Scott. There have been vigorous attacks and defence of his competence and planning. Should he have used dogs as his primary method of hauling sleds, should he have done more to stop fuel tanks leaking, should he have opted for fur over manmade clothing?

On the other hand, while Scott has had his reputation attacked and defended, Sir Ernest Shackleton has benefited from a new wave of lionisation. Television drama and exhibitions have attested to one of the most extraordinary feats ever achieved by an explorer.

New generations have marvelled at Shackleton's reaction to the loss of his ship Endurance in the Antarctic ice. His leading of his men to Elephant Island and his expedition with a small group over the sea to South Georgia to get help is more than ever the stuff of legend.

Shackleton was feted at the time, adulated in south and north America and knighted back in Britain, but now his star is in danger of eclipsing Scott's, says Stephanie Barczewski, author of Antarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton, and the Changing Face of Heroism.

In her new book, Barczewski argues that two strands in modern popular culture in both Britain and America make Shackleton the more popular hero. The first of these, she suggests, is the desire for macho heroes since the 1980s, as a reaction against the economic and political uncertainty of the 1970s and a by-product of the premium on strong leadership.

"Scott's image is much more of a tortured angst-ridden Victorian. But Shackleton is seen as a macho physical type. He is seen as a better hero," Barczewski says.

The key thing in Shackleton's mythos for the modern adulator is that his men made it back alive. For the post-Victorians, the death of Scott's party also had resonance. This was an era that liked to look for its heroes among splendid chaps like Gordon of Khartoum who often died awful deaths defending the glory of the empire.

Culture of death

"There was this culture of death. People were much more eager to celebrate heroic death than survival. After World War I so many people were dealing with the death of relatives and friends," says Barczewski.

Shackleton on the other hand has been taken up as a heroic man manager for the modern age. His unflappability, ability to gauge the mood of his men, keep morale high and remain receptive to the ideas of his subordinates make him a corporate hero, says Margot Morrell, author of Shackleton's Way.

Morrell cites the account of the men who remained on Elephant Island cheerfully building "snow maidens" despite not knowing whether they were going to live or die as evidence of the extraordinary trust and good spirits Shackleton engendered in his men.

"He got through some incredible ordeals so successfully. One thing that resonates for people is they don't want to be surrounded by yes men. Like Shackleton, they want to hear the unvarnished truth. He kept the lines of communication open with his men always asking for their opinions and advice."

The second major shift in thinking on Shackleton has been in response to changing perceptions of class, Barczewski says.

Put simply, Scott is seen as aloof and posh, a symbol of the empire, whereas Shackleton despite also coming from the well-to-do is seen as more down to earth and adaptable for the modern era.

People's heroes

"Shackleton is this everyman, he is seen as a much more democratic and accessible figure," says Barczewski.

The modern public look for people's heroes. Ordinary people doing extraordinary things. And they think they find what they are looking for more in Shackleton than Scott, Barczewski suggests.

We have come a long way since the notion of heroism that prevailed at the tail end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Then heroes were easy to define. They were people like Gordon, upper class men with stiff, and usually moustachioed, upper lips.

George MacDonald Fraser, in the Flashman books, parodied this love of the upper class, well mannered, death defying hero.

In those days hero was a simple label, the adventure magazines of schoolboys would have resounded with tales of men like Gordon, Livingstone, and Scott.

But by 2007 there is a feeling of change. As well as our re-evaluation of long dead heroes like Shackleton and Scott by modern standards, a different category of person is now feted. Baggage handler John Smeaton, who tackled a would-be bomber at Glasgow Airport is more to the modern taste.

And 2007 was supposed to be the year of the people's hero. Gordon Brown published the book Everyday Heroes in July, his take on how to get society to respect volunteering and thereby volunteer more. The honours system should not just be about the great and the good, he said, but about the "ordinary" men and women who underpin the voluntary sector.

Now awards have gone to "ordinary" people. Edward Wilson was made MBE for three decades as a street sweeper in London's West End. Anne Milner earned the same honour for her work as a traffic warden in Cornwall. Dinner lady and school cleaner Dorothy Winner, a head teacher who had turned around a failing school, was knighted.

It's not quite adulation to the level of making it on to a stamp or into a television drama, but it's certainly recognition.

Antarctic Destinies: Scott, Shackleton, and the Changing Face of Heroism is published by Hambledon Continuum.

Below is a selection of your comments.

I do not know if either was a hero. But what they did was pretty heroic. Both came from similar middle class backgrounds. Both struggled to maintain a living. I expect arguments will rage as to the strengths of the one relative to the other. I don't intend to. I admire them both. Very few people living today could have done what they did (justified or otherwise). I am glad of their lives and the examples they set. They remind one of one's own inadequacy. Their standards and achievements by any measure are pretty impressive.
Ronnie Howson, Ipswich, UK

What a ridiculous question! Both Scott and Shackleton are heroes. To try and compare one as better than the other is a parlour game for idle people with too much time on their hands. For a true understanding of both men's greatness, I suggest you ask a living hero: Sir Ranulph Fiennes. His views on Scott's great achievements are well known and he would at least be able to talk from a position of knowledge.
Mark Bentley, Skipton

Scott was an egotistical fool who took four men to their deaths and very nearly another three as well. The real hero of that farce was Tom Crean who also accompanied Shackleton on his epic journey but who is now largely forgotten.
Mick, Westbury, Wilts

The reason I voted for Shackleton over Scott is nothing to do with some modern version of heroism: Scott was an incompetent leader in every sense. He rejected modern methods of polar exploration - even when his own experiences proved them to be more efficient than his ponies and man-hauling. He was inflexible and egotistic and blamed his failures on anyone but himself. His inflexibility caused the deaths of his whole party. Shackleton was the exact opposite - doing everything humanly possible to bring his men back alive. That's what makes him a hero.
Tim McNulty, Isle of Man

People tend to forget that Scott was a modern scientist as well as an explorer - his two expeditions laid the basis for the modern exploration of Antarctica. The same cannot be said for Shackleton or Amundsen. They were all successful heroes in their own particular ways, and all took risks beyond the imagination of most people. Scott was unlucky; Shackleton had extraordinary good fortune to survive all three of his Antarctic expeditions, and Amundsen eventually died in the Arctic. It's invidious to suggest that one or the other was the greater hero. The miraculous self-rescue of Shackleton's party from the disaster of his "Endurance" expedition owes much to the mental strength and resolution of his men, whilst Scott's death was due to extreme bad fortune with the weather. Things could so easily have turned out differently.
Brian Beesley, UK

Both Scott and Shackleton (and their men such as Crean, Cherry-Garrard, Wild and Wilson) are heroic figures to me. Unfortunately Scott has suffered mainly due to over the top criticism in Roland Huntford's book "Scott and Amundsen" which for some years was the most referred to book on Capt Scott. Huntford himself has now been debunked by people who actually have experience in the Antarctic. Sir Ranulph Fiennes wrote a more balanced account in 2003, and Dr Susan Soloman's "The Coldest March" proved that Scott suffered from unusually bad Antarctic weather on his return. What many of Shackleton's admirers seem to forget is that yes, he was great at getting his men out of trouble, but he had considerable luck on his side both in 1908/9 and 1914/16 that Scott never had. He DID lose men, three of his Ross Sea Party (laying depots for men that never came) died in the Transantarctic expedition of 1914/16. Both men had faults but were ultimately heroic explorers who suffered great hardship in the cause of furthering human knowledge.
Darren Langley, Dudley, England

To me, neither is a hero. There was no necessity to reach the Pole, simply a wish to, for glory. Putting your own life at risk and those with you at risk is no heroic feat. To risk or lose your life trying to save someone else is truly heroic.
Lucy P, Maidstone, Kent

Both were failures, but Shackleton's ability to return his men safely is the distinction that most remains in the public mind. Less well appreciated is the quality of scientific research that Scott's team accomplished during his various expeditions; Scott's ability to record consistent, accurate data of meteorological conditions has, as I understand it, continued to form a solid bedrock of research and data which is still referred to to this day. In that respect at least, Scott may well be considered the more successful of the two, having left a genuine scientific legacy for future generations, seldom matched subsequently.
Keith Laker, Guernsey

Re 2007 being the year of the people's hero, why were the 7/7 "civilians", i.e. those not in the emergency services or London Transport, not honoured in the recent honours list? The official response was apparently "awards are not for a single act or event". Apparently John Smeaton (see above) was selected for a bravery award recently: whilst not contesting his deservedness for an award, why were the 7/7 heroes and heroines ignored?
Alec Travers, Hawkhurst, Kent

Flashman a hero in the old mould? No! He's a lily livered, but extremely lucky, misogynistic coward. And admits it freely... But, you have to agree, that the "public" perception spins him into being a hero... hence all those medals and meetings with Queen Victoria.
Lady Jane, London

Traffic wardens, dinner ladies... give me a break. Sure they make contributions to society, but so do most of us. Do we all need to walk around with letters after our names and medals on our chest. Let's save adulation for the heroes who deserve it, people who put themselves in harms way for the benefit of others without knowing the outcome. Shackleton was a hero, that journey to get help is the stuff of legend. I don't think a dinner lady could have pulled that one off.
Super Steve, Smallsville

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