We had heroes aplenty in my boyhood days. Most of them were returned soldiers. We had so many war heroes that I didn’t know until my twenties that one of my neighbours had won the Military Cross at Cassino, and another had been in Ngarimu’s platoon on Takrouna when the Te Aute Old Boy won the Victoria Cross. No one talked about it much.
I had four boyhood heroes. The last of them died a month ago aged 93. Two of them achieved military distinction. One of them was prominent in civic affairs and good works, and the fourth was a champion all-rounder.
Their common attributes were modesty, integrity, a solid work ethic, the ability to express a view without rancour or giving offence, whether the view was fashionable or not. They were respectful of others but did not suffer fools gladly, and led by example. They treated everyone the same from the lowest of the low to the governor general. Although one of them did behave rather badly at a squadron reunion at government house half a century ago.
They were all well read, took a wide view of human affairs and got things done with a minimum of fuss and paper work. Best of all, they all shared that greatest of New Zealand characteristics: a delightful self-deprecating sense of humour, which, except in Parliament, never allows us to get too big for our boots. In short, the opposite aspect of the nefarious tall poppy syndrome.
There’s been a sea change in public attitudes since those men lived and died. In principle we revere the modest Kiwi achiever. But I don’t see that any of my boyhood heroes would be have been comfortable advertising trinkets on television or selling photos of their baby to the Woman’s Weekly.
But they must be out there. Perhaps the Greenies are the modern heroes. This week the Government Laboratory in Hawaii measured carbon readings of 390 parts per billion, the highest in a million years. And the East Antarctic ice sheet is melting faster than we thought. Maybe those pesky doomsayers are the new heroes … The end of the world is at hand, so don’t extend the airport.
You could pick out innumerable people who help out those less privileged or fortunate than themselves. The unsung saints will always be with us. But they tend to work locally and seldom change the world. The captains of industry are sort of heroic, although the mantra that full employment guarantees happiness is well discredited … except by Treasury and John Key.
Farmers used to be heroes. The country’s prosperity rode on the sheep’s back. But now they are villains who pollute rivers and spread 1080.
Perhaps television provides the new breed of hero. I wouldn’t know. My set broke down in 1998 and I never replaced it. I once watched an entire episode of Shortland Street to win a bet. It convinced me that if the Street is even a remote reflection of modern post industrial society, the human race is a doomed species. And deservedly so.
If it comes down to choosing, I nominate the tree planters and foresters. They fulfill the requirements. They get out there and with a minimum of fuss, with professionalism, dedication and enthusiasm, they quietly beaver away to make the world a better and more beautiful place. If geography ultimately shapes history, they may yet save the planet.
In any case, the doer is more heroic than the talker, and there is no question that in the field of high achievement, the spade is mightier than the word.
Who knows? One day the Bogans of this world may be glued to their television screens, enthralled by the latest episode of Shortland Forest … a gritty drama set in native bush, reflecting the concerns of contemporary Aoteoroa.
Oscar Wilde, who never planted a tree in his life, said: “All of us are in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” The true heroes are those who are quietly cleaning up the gutter while the rest of us talk about designer space rockets.
The good guys are everywhere, but if they are true heroes, most people won’t even know they are there.