In September 1977 the British punk rock group The Stranglers released a song that’s never left my personal top ten: 'No More Heroes'. I was a little too old and far too conservative-with-a-small-c to have embraced punk-with-a-capital-p except in principle. I suppose you might have called me a closet punk but thirty-seven years on—Christ! when did it get to be thirty-seven years?—I'm still happy to sit down and watch documentaries about that time. People say you should never meet your heroes; that they will inevitably disappoint you. How can a hero let you down when they don't even know you? Surely, like the rest of us, a hero can only let himself down.
I remember well when John Wayne died in 1979. I knew precious little about him other than his various screen personae but he had been a fixture of my childhood; it was as if a bit of my childhood had slipped away quietly in the night. I’ve probably seen most of his films and more than once—they were always on TV—and he was always the hero. Unlike Henry Fonda or James Stewart I don't ever recall John Wayne ever not being cast as the good guy; the worst you could say about some of his characters (like his role in Red River) was that they were sometimes unpleasant. In the same way that you could rely on Superman you could rely on John Wayne. Now Batman was another kettle of fish.
In 1986 the comics industry got the same wakeup call that the music industry had in 1976: Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns was released and suddenly all memories of the camp Batman of the sixties were blown away. I'd always been a fan of Batman and I was overjoyed to see him finally grow up and the character’s never looked back or smiled again if it comes to that. Can a fictional character be a hero? Of course he can. In fact fictional heroes are a far safer bet than real life ones because all you know about them (all there is to know) is contained on the page. Holden Caulfield was a hero for one generation. Harry Potter’s been a hero for another.
But I've never been quite able to shake the lyrics of ‘No More Heroes’. Since then I've always been hesitant to call anyone my hero or role model or even to say that I looked up to them because, and this began with Wayne, I learned that who we imagine a person to be and who they really are are always two different things. I've heard soap actors talking about how the public react to them in the street. If they're a good guy that's fine but if they're a rotter, well, it seems that a lot of people can't always tell the difference between an actor and his or her character. I think that's scary.
Over the years the stories have got told, though, and I've become increasingly disillusioned with people in general as one by one they’ve had their human sides revealed. (I’m thinking here particularly on the recent docu-dramas exposing the private lives of celebrities like Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams, Frankie Howard and Hughie Green. Morecombe and Wise acquitted themselves well.) I’ve always been acutely aware of my own weaknesses so why would I imagine that other people were flawless? I think the truth is that I wanted to believe others had cracked it; that it was possible. I wanted to believe in heroes but I didn't trust myself to. And in recent years so many have been exposed as being less than we imagined them to be.
Everyone gives Judas Iscariot a hard time because of what he did. We tend to forget that all the disciples abandoned Jesus to his fate. At least Judas felt so bad about what he did he went off and hanged himself. Peter just had a good cry when the cock crowed and he'd let Jesus down not once but three times. Now, of course, he's a saint so everything's all right.
These days I try to draw a line: we have the man and we have his works. One of the first writers to point me in the right direction was Philip Larkin who was for many years the country's favourite poet and then Andrew Motion's biography came out in 1994 and we saw the man for what he was: a “casual, habitual racist and an easy misogynist”. Having read his poems why were we so disappointed? Only a truly flawed and sad individual could have written them and that's what he turned out to be. His reputation will never be what it was but somehow his poetry has survived.
Nowadays there are people I have a soft spot for but I tend to avoid biographies. I'm not a big fan of the truth. It's overrated. It mostly disappoints. It's like hype. I remember when I heard the first post-Dark Knight Batman film was coming out. I read every scrap of information I could find and had built myself up into such a state by the time the film was released I was—inevitably—disappointed. It wasn't a bad film—it was far from being a bad film—but no film could have lived up to my expectations.
I think the worst thing anyone could say to me would be, "You're my hero." If only they knew the truth. What do you do when that happens? Break it to them gently? Hope they never find out? Move? I do know there have been people out there who’ve admired me and have felt I've let them down. Well, I suppose if it wasn't me that was going to disappoint them then it would've been someone else. It's a rite of passage, like learning there's no Santa. There is no Santa, no tooth fairy and there are no more heroes either. There probably never were but, like Saint Nicholas (the one-time Bishop of Myra), it would be kinda nice if there had been.