The Wanderer article #1: Stand up

“Golf is a good walk spoilt” said Mark Twain and I couldn’t agree more. But after last weekend’s experience I would now add to that: “A Hunt is a good walk spoilt”. I was walking round Firle Beacon in Sussex when I walked right into the middle of a bunch of idiots in red coats on horseback. I think those red coats now have that same evil association as the Nazi uniform for many people.

I made a feeble effort to show my opposition to them – difficult when there are 30 plus people on horseback looking down at you. My protest involved being a bit sarcastic towards them and then not closing a gate when they asked. Hardly going to win any medals for bravery there am I? But it got me thinking about hunt saboteurs.

It is the job of sabs now (I say ‘job’ but they are not paid) to ‘observe’ hunts; to follow them, video them (for which the hunt routinely calls them paedophiles) and to report any abuse of the law to the police. The police, meanwhile, still seem to follow and persecute the sabs even though it is they who are trying to uphold the law.

Anyway, this isn’t what I want to talk about because it’s making me angry just thinking about the injustice. What I want to talk about is the definition of a hero.

I watched Life is Beautiful last night, the heart-breaking story of a father and his young son who are sent to a death camp in Nazi Germany where the father makes the whole experience into a big game for his son and ultimately loses his life so that his son can live. This must be the ultimate in heroism. To put your life on the line for love. To care so much about another living thing that you would sacrifice your own safety for them. Or to feel so passionately that something is wrong that you would risk personal liberty to right it.

A hero is something that everyone can aspire to. It’s something that everyone can do no matter their ability. That’s what makes the hero’s appeal so great and so fundamental to the human experience. It’s the fact that we can do it too. We can stand up for what is right and good and be counted as a hero. We can jump in the way of the bully and be the hero. We can save the day and be a hero. It’s an important role in society because heroes show us what is right and wrong. We look up to heroes. They show us a better way to live.

The most heroic thing I did last year was to rescue a sheep caught in a fence on a walk around Castle Drogo on Dartmoor. Her head was caught in a wire fence after she had tried to reach the grass on the other side. It seemed that forward was the only direction she knew so she couldn’t simply reverse out. I grabbed her and wrestled her head back through the fence as quickly as I could so as not to frighten her too much. Juju, my ever-helpful dog, barked at her the whole time so the poor thing must have been terrified! I got her free and she ran away.

Now, I know… I know it was such a tiny gesture of goodwill and it didn’t rescue the sheep from her ultimate fate but – and I’m trying not to be smug here – I felt genuinely great afterwards. It made the walk special and memorable and I just felt like I’d done something worthwhile that day. It’s events like this that make life an adventure where you’re the protagonist. Your very own swashbuckling, dragon-slaying, sheep-rescuing story.

We all need heroes to aspire to. We all need heroic stories to inspire us. So who do the mainstream media choose to laud as our modern day heroes? Hunt sabs who are upholding the law while at risk of being prosecuted themselves – standing up to the bully? Protesters who are protecting our woodland from marauding development – fighting against all odds? Demonstrators against government inaction on climate change which threatens the very world we live in – literally trying to save the day? No. X-Factor runners-up and multimillion-pound footballers, potty-mouthed chefs and witless Barbie dolls. These gormless wannabees who have been sucked up by the gigantic media monster, flailed about for the rest of us idiots to gawp at and then shat out in some exclusive shame story. This is who we are meant to look up to.

It’s not the actual show X-Factor that bothers me. Curtis White said in The Middle Mind that ‘our entertainment is testament to our ability and willingness to endure boredom and pay for it’ and he’s right. Go ahead and watch this shit all day if you want – I couldn’t care less. What does bother me is how much this fickle worshipping of a brand – because these pop idols aren’t human any more, they are purely a marketable commodity, like a new energy-drink with a flashy jacket that someone else has chosen – how much this lust for false-heroes permeates society. Simon Cowell and all those other media cronies are murdering our true heroes with their tortuous, vacuous, pop ‘entertainment’ by killing the notion of what it is to be a hero. They are taking the story books of our heroes and scribbling ‘piss’ and ‘wank’ on them. They are saying that only these special few that we pick are allowed to be a hero. They are telling us that anyone can rise from obscurity into fame and, therefore, be a hero. A hero because someone has told them they are. A hero as long as they can write an autobiography, or two, about it afterwards. A hero as long as it makes money.

Surely this is the antithesis of a true hero. If heroism is altruism then the hero nullifies their act by showing-off about it or making money from it. It’s like Batman saving Gotham City and then selling his story to the Gotham Gazette. Whatever happened to nobility?

Psychologists would say that altruism doesn’t truly exist because we always perform acts of kindness with some hope of reward. But Milan Kundera stated in The Unbearable Lightness of Being that “true human goodness…can come to the fore only when its recipient has no power. Mankind’s true moral test…consists of its attitude towards those who are at its mercy: animals.” Because we don’t get any reward from the animals we help then helping animals must be the most altruistic act. Which brings me back to the heroism of the hunt sab.

My friend Drew once told me a great story and I hope I get it right. Drew was out sabbing in the days when hunting with dogs wasn’t illegal. This time, for once, the sabs were successful and the fox escaped. However, Drew and his friend were being chased by the police. They split up to try to evade them. Drew ended up running through some woods. After a while he stopped, exhausted, looked up and there in front of him was the pursued fox, looking right at him. Both fugitives, both hunted, they exchanged respectful glances before each making their way to freedom.

It is stories like these that make my heart well up. They remind me that the world can be full of heroism after all. Heroism isn’t found in the glossed face of the latest X-Factor winner. Heroism has a rugged, kind face. Heroism isn’t found in newspapers. Heroism doesn’t like its photo taken. Heroes aren’t the elite. Heroism can be found all around us. Most importantly, heroism can be found right here inside you. You just have to do that thing you do at the start of any walk: stand up.

(This article appeared in The Wanderer issue 1)