The middle week of August saw a lot of talk of heroes. Specifically, great female role models: women who weren’t afraid to stand up and do things their way; to dare to make a difference.
And, unquestionably, the experiences I had as a child, a teenager, and since, have been moulded by their actions and aspirations. Madonna turned 60 on August 16. Aretha Franklin – the Queen of Soul; the first woman to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The woman who was a family friend of Martin Luther King, and sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration – died.
Women who were part of some of the most powerful cultural moments of the last 100 years.
As a kid I liked Madonna’s pop period – I can remember dancing in a caravan park disco to La Isla Bonita. But as a teenager, she confused me. Her ever-changing looks and styles isolated me from her; I wasn’t sure who she was any more. When, of course, she was just a brilliant woman doing whatever the hell she wanted to, and refusing to be labelled for it.
Aretha spoke for them all. Fighting prejudice and injustice, and never doing something just because it was easy. ‘It’s the rough side of the mountain that’s the easiest to climb; the smooth side doesn’t have anything for you to hang on to,’ she told Ebony in 1964.
So I asked the team who their heroes are. All of them said they didn’t really have one. But they all came back with answers in minutes.
‘I suppose a bit of a hero of mine is Howard Gossage (although I base that on a book I’ve read 20 or so times and bits of interviews I’ve watched online),’ says Andrew. ‘He ran an advertising firm in San Fransisco in the ‘60s and created some of the funniest and most powerful writing I’ve ever read. But he was also a bit ahead of his time in terms of his approach to how it worked – using coupons to create a feedback loop between the brand and consumer, a bit like social media. And he played a part in Friends of the Earth launching (and did some really early environmental advertising for Sierra Club), had John Steinbeck, Buckminster Fuller, Ken Kesey, Tom Wolfe and Marshall McLuhan hang out in his offices and launched some fashion pieces with Pablo Picasso.’
Jack said that he used to have heroes, but not so much anymore. ‘As a teenager it was mis-placed worship for awful musicians (before I discovered the good stuff), and a roster of actors and directors who have gone on to disappoint me, or die, or disappoint me and then die.
‘I like John Lennon’s quote; “I don’t believe in the Beatles, I just believe in me” and yes, I too heard it first from Ferris Bueller. It resonates with me because, at the end of the day, it’s up to me to get off my arse and try and do something good with my life, while being a far better person than Lennon could ever hope to be (oh I could rant for days about the so-called ‘working class hero’).
‘I mean, that’s not to say there aren’t countless people who I greatly admire, whose work stays evergreen and is re-evaluated and debated as time goes by, I just accept them on their own merits and will find myself agreeing with them on some things and disagreeing with them on others.
‘….but if you’re twisting my arm I’ll say Ian MacKaye. A punk goofball who did things his own way off his own back, affecting positive change and influencing a sub-culture within a sub-culture, while making great fucking music while he did it. If, when I’m 60, I can look back and think “yeah, Ian would pat me on the back and say ‘ehh you did alright I suppose’” then I’ll be ok with that, even though he’d deffo slap me for a few things.
‘… and Steve McManaman. Boss hair and a boss right peg.’ So I think we’ve established that Jack has least four heroes. (I also had a Steve McManaman fan club at school, when I was about 15, called SMAC.)
Maybe we just have different definitions of ‘hero’. Lucy Moss spent the weekend thinking about it before saying: ‘My colleagues would be the first to tell you I overthink everything. I had to contemplate long and hard about who I might identify as my hero. I’ve never consciously had one. I think it’s quite a personal thing as it essentially aligns you with someone’s beliefs and principles. There are people I actively admire, both well known and otherwise, however, so here we go.
‘I decided on Sandi Toksvig. She’s smart as a whip, consistently funny and down to earth. She’s been groundbreaking on TV – both appearing in, as well as heading up, mainstream shows; she’s a prolific writer; but importantly she is a feminist and activist, something she acted on by co-founding the Women’s Equality Party in 2015. Although the party has a long way to go, it has made huge bounds in a short period to become established as a serious political party.
‘I was lucky enough to meet her a few years ago at the Birmingham Literature Festival and she was just as funny and humble in real life as she seems to be on TV. I don’t know her, of course, but she strikes me as someone who doesn’t have a hidden agenda, she is what she is and makes no apology for that.
‘I’d definitely recommend looking up her TED talk from 2016. Hearing her speak about her experience when she came out as gay to the British media and then had to go into hiding with her children because she received death threats struck quite a chord with me. This didn’t stop her from continuing to pursue her career, and thank goodness it didn’t. Where others might have walked away she remained unapologetic and got on with it anyway. We live in slightly different times from the mid-1990s in relation to LGBT+ rights, but still, Sandi led the way for others to pursue their careers in the spotlight, no matter who they are.’
And Lucy C plumped for Zadie Smith. ‘She influenced a lot of my work at university whilst studying an English Literature degree; and consequently, my dissertation was focused on hybrid identity in contemporary British literature – focusing on her seminal novel, White Teeth. I believe that a lot of my research and reading surrounding White Teeth at the time, has shaped my thinking in a lot of what I do, and the opinions that I hold to this day. Smith has an unrivalled grasp on creating a character with social, cultural and political depth, and is able to portray the human condition from a fresh, contemporary and relatable viewpoint.
And another recommendation: ’I would encourage anybody and everybody to read Smith’s 2016 Welt Literature Prize acceptance speech: On Optimism and Despair…’
As I say, perhaps I have a different definition of ‘hero’ to everyone else. David Bowie is my all time hero. Charismatic, whimsical, bold, beautiful and insanely talented – and, sure, point out the similarities between his changing looks and determination not to be pigeonholed to Madonna’s. Ironically, Heroes was the first bit of my millennium soundtrack, blasting out across Liverpool as I arrived at the city’s docks. But also – especially in my teenage years, I idolised Steffi Graf. And Andre Agassi. And the fact they’re now married with beautiful children still makes me do a little happy squeal.
Ask me next week and I’ll probably reel off another handful. I love having someone to believe in, and to dream about. But Bowie will always be one of them.