Monday, 6 July 2009


I was fascinated by Chris' latest (and much awaited!) post. In it he talks about his heroes, which started me wondering who I'd choose. Which led to this post. Thanks, Chris!

Johann Sebastian Bach

Famous for inventing the "perm", Bach also wrote a bit of music. Actually, he wrote so much that people doing caculations about how fast you can write music with quills have come to the conclusion that 65 years aren't enough. He also fathered 20 children. During his lifetime he was better known for his prowess with his organ than for his compositions. After his death some of his children became famous composers, and his (now out of date) work was forgotten.

Or rather it wasn't completely forgotten. Professional musicians knew about him, and centuries later there was a Bach revival. Here was a man living at the end of an era. Baroque music had been dominant for 200 years, and people generally date the end of this period with his death in 1750. Many people also consider his work to be the finest of that period. And that's what makes him a hero. To write music that was starting to be considered as old-fashioned even in his lifetime, and yet to do it better than anyone else had managed in two centuries is a pretty amazing achievement.

He also wrote the music to the most successful British TV advertising campaign of all time.

Music by Bach (Arranged and performed by Jacques Loussier)

Samuel Johnson

Dr Johnson was a talented writer. He was also a great conversationalist. And a lazy git. Okay, he single handedly wrote the most famous dictionary of all time, as well as some other stuff that was well regarded during his lifetime, but he spent most of his long life doing bugger all. Or rather, doing as little as possible.

In 1767, at the age of 57, during one of his regular visits to the library at the "Queen's House", he met King George III. The King had heard that Dr Johnson frequented the library and arranged to be there during one such visit. The librarian went up to Dr J and said "Sir, here is the King". The good doctor hastily shoved February's Hustler under a chair and stood to attention.

The King asked for his opinions on various matters, including literature, science and history. Then His Majesty asked why Johnson hadn't published anything lately. Not satisfied with the answer that he'd written down everything he knew and so had nothing else left, he suggested that Johnson should write a literary biography of Britain. No doubt Dr J would have told anyone else that he was retired, but he couldn't ignore a command from his Sovereign, and did indeed write the biography.

What makes Johnson heroic is his integrity and his humanity. As far as possible, he treated his fellow humans equally. He shared his house with several "waifs and strays", was a great believer in education for all (he sent his African manservant off for a few years to college at his expense), was vehemently opposed to slavery (he shocked fellow diners by proposing a toast to a slave rebellion in the West Indies). He was friendly with some of the most influential people of his period, but would equally happily and enthusiastically talk to any dodgy character that he might meet in the streets of London.

Reading his biography 300 years on, you realise just how ahead of his time he was. Very few of his opinions look dated or strange. Perhaps his respect for royalty and the upper classes is a bit old-fashioned, and his pathological hatred of Americans hasn't been completely explained. He certainly didn't agree with their presumptious ideas about independence.

Mae West

Mae West trod the boards with her rather dodgy Vaudeville acts, and got into films in her late 30s. Sadly, this was around the time when the US was getting into film censorship, and her films made them realise that it wasn't just visual stuff like nudity that they had to worry about, but innuendo. Their rules seriously cramped Mae's style, and her film career was relatively short-lived.

So why is she famous? This is something that I can't figure out. I wonder how many people have heard of her but haven't seen any of her films. If you fall into that category then I strongly advise you to watch some of them. What you'll see is not a sex symbol like Marilyn Monroe, dumb and submissive, but a strong-willed kick-ass woman. She is interested in men for what they can give her in bed, or in diamonds and cash, preferably both. It's not difficult to see why the Catholic censors didn't like her.

I love a scene in one of her films - it might be one of the ones with Cary Grant - where she encounters a young man. "Can I help you?", he asks. She looks him up and down (particularly down), and replies "Hmmm. Yes, I think you can."

My favourite quote:

Woman: "Goodness, what lovely diamonds."
Mae West: "My dear, goodness had nothing to do with it."

Glenn Gould

I could write volumes about GG. I could have a Glenn Gould blog, and write a couple of posts a week about him. It's difficult to describe the effect that this one dead person (he died in 1982) has had on my life over the past ten years. Maybe one day I'll get my thoughts sufficiently organised to write something about it.

Initially, I wasn't going to include him as a heroic figure, but the more I thought about it, I realised that he was. He was an extraordinarily gifted Canadian pianist who was an even more gifted communicator. There is something special in his playing that has led to people (including me) having experiences that are similar to a religious-style revelation. Seeing the light. Or rather, hearing it.

The heroic part is the way that Gould managed to achieve his goals. A concert pianist who hates giving concerts, who has some interesting mannerisms and who accompanies himself by singing along loudly would ordinarily appear to be on a hiding to nothing. Nevertheless, he was one of the greatest and most influential Bach interpreters of all time. He gave up concerts at the age of 32, devoting himself to recordings and writings. The latter are incredibly entertaining if a little pretentious at times. He believed that he could get closer to his audience through recordings and technology, and not only did he succeed, but he continues to do so decades after his death.

So that's four of the people who I feel are worthy contenders for the title of "Hero". Even if none of them have slayed Medusa, or done whatever Mutant Ninja Hero Turtles do, I hope you'll agree that they're all impressive in their own ways.


Bee said...


Bee said...

I think all the heroes I came up with all have something to do with music.

Bee said...

Sorry it took so long for the second comment but Tazz decided he wanted to take over my space and I had to show him who was boss. I came back as soon as he left.

jean knee said...

How could I not be first???

jean knee said...

dang, i have no heroes

Kat said...

I've no hero either. Pathetic, I know...Sue me ;o)

Chris Wood said...

Dammit, I left out the Hero Turtles! I liked the post & thanks for the credit.

I should recommend "32 Short Films About Glenn Gould" if you haven't seen it, as it presents some great angles on that brilliant and rather unusual man.

Brian o vretanos said...


Music is so important in our lives that it's not surprising you picked musical heroes.

Jean Knee:

Don't worry. One time doesn't stop you being my firsting heroine. Just don't let it happen again ;-)


It seems that the heroless are in the majority here.


Thanks. Yes, I have seen that film. It was very well made and covered most of the important points about GG.