BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Counter-cultural book for our times
, July 9, 2011
For Making Men out of Boys
by Neil Oliver
(Penguin Books Australia, 2009)
Paperback: 368 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
A few years ago I reviewed The Dangerous Book For Boys, a book by Conn and Hal Iggulden (News Weekly, October 13, 2007), which was designed to appeal to male children, and encourage them be more active and adventurous.
It is unlikely that today’s boys would read Neil Oliver’s book Amazing Tales.
Although it covers some of the same material (Nelson and Trafalgar, Scott of the Antarctic, Douglas Bader and the Battle of Britain), it aims rather at inspiring older generations to go out and celebrate amongst our emasculated youth the heroic qualities exemplified in these stories.
The adults probably already possess some knowledge of such epics; but, as Doctor Johnson said, people need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed.
In his introduction, Oliver bemoans the disintegration of that ideal of British manliness with which British boys were once inculcated, explicitly or implicitly.
The values represented by this ideal included practicality, resourcefulness, taciturnity, stoicism, loyalty, courage, endurance, comradeship, adventurousness and duty.
The structure of the rest of Amazing Tales consists of a biography of Oliver’s beau ideal, Captain Robert Falcon Scott, interspersed with historical episodes which illustrate the various manly qualities thrown up along the way by incidents in Scott’s career.
These stirring events (which remind me that, while still at primary school, I inherited from my uncle a boys’ book from the early 20th century called Stirring Sea Fights) range across history from Leonidas and the Spartans at Thermopylae in 480 BC, to Neil Armstrong and the Moon landing in 1969.
Much as we might sympathise with Oliver’s nostalgia and convictions, a number of demurrers are too insistent to ignore.
First, as even the supposedly arch-jingoist Kipling recognised, British soldiers (like the soldiers of every nation, including Australia) were not invariably heroic, and sometimes ran away:
… I heard a beggar squealin’ out for quarter as ’e ran,
An’ I thought I knew the voice — an’ it was me!
In 1881, just two years after the heroic defence of Rorke’s Drift which Oliver describes, and also in South Africa, British soldiers broke and fled as a rabble as the Boers attacked on their position on Majuba Hill.
Second and paradoxically, a so-called “manly” capacity to triumphantly transcend adverse circumstances is not restricted to males.
It is difficult to find in Australian history any more moving example than the words of Matron Irene Drummond as she entered the sea in 1942 to be machine-gunned by Japanese soldiers, along with 20 of her nurses: “Chin up, girls!”
Third, far from being a uniquely British preoccupation, almost every culture has revered manly virtues.
This point is made satirically by P.G. Wodehouse, when Bertie Wooster urges his famous manservant to an uninviting piece of service by citing the example of a Bulgarian who displayed outstanding devotion to duty, followed by the admonition, “Be Bulgarian, Jeeves!”
Fourth, “stiff upper lip” lack of emotional expression amongst men, particularly towards one another, far from being a badge of manliness as Oliver implies, is in fact a relatively recent aberration.
The evidence ranges from the warriors David and Jonathan in the 10th century BC, to Admiral Horatio “Kiss me, Hardy” Nelson in the early 19th.
As C.S. Lewis wrote over 50 years ago, “On a broad historical view it is, of course, not the demonstrative gestures of friendship among our ancestors but the absence of such gestures in our own society that calls for some special explanation. We, not they, are out of step.”
Fifth, there are contradictions amongst the “manly” values adduced by Oliver.
On the one hand, it is manly to toil away uncomplainingly at unglamorous labour for a lifetime, as the protector and breadwinner for one’s wife and children, but it is also manly to abandon cloying and constrictive domestic responsibilities and set out into the wide blue yonder in search of adventure.
Sixth, incomparably noble manliness can co-exist with far more questionable traits.
For example Lawrence Oates, who sacrificed himself in an attempt to save the other members of Scott’s last expedition (“a very gallant gentleman”, as Scott calls him in his log) had fathered a child by an 11-year-old girl.
Finally, Oliver does not adequately address the problem of means and ends as it applies to manliness.
Some of the most extraordinary paragons of manly virtues such as courage, duty, comradeship, loyalty, dedication, sacrifice and endurance, have displayed them in the service of history’s most bestial and revolting regimes.
Examples include the World War II soldiers of the Japanese imperial army and the Waffen SS.
The closest Amazing Tales comes to grappling with this issue is its description of Spartan society, in which it is admitted that the purpose of the Spartans’ rigorously ingrained martial valour was to subjugate, exploit and mistreat their helots.
While Oliver’s mission of inculcating manly virtues in boys is so conservative, so out of kilter with the Zeitgeist, as to make his introduction teeter on the edge of sounding like self-aware irony, he can also on the other hand occasionally sound politically correct.
For example, his story of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perces Indians depicts Europeans as uniquely aggressive, rapacious and expansionist, despite the fact that most cultures have displayed these traits as they have found opportunity.
That is not to excuse Westerners’ faults, be it in North America, Australia or anywhere else, but to recognise that the peoples whom they exploited were not morally superior, just technologically inferior.
As Hilaire Belloc famously observed:
Whatever happens, we have got,
The Maxim gun, and they have not.
The Atlantic slave trade, for example, was a disgrace; but Europeans merely bought into an already existing system of chattel servitude, which the African and Arab slave-traders would happily have extended to Europe, rather than vice versa, had they been capable of doing so.
Then there is Oliver’s ambivalence towards the communists in his story of the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu (another example of “manly” virtues exercised in a vile cause, as Giap’s indomitable Viet Minh troops fought to impose neo-Stalinism on the people of Indo-China).
Oliver is unequivocal in his abhorrence of the Nazis in his World War II stories, but, far from condemning the murderous thug and dictator Ho Chi Minh, presents him as some sort of anti-imperialist hero.
By no means all of the stories in Amazing Tales are of glorious victories.
Many recount failures (John Moore at Corunna), some of them involving stupidity and incompetence (Isanadlwana, Charge of the Light Brigade), and others, a success involving a huge investment of human capital for a disproportionately small return (Cockleshell Heroes).
However, to take a debunking approach to heroic adventures is, as Oliver says, “to miss the point of the kind of tales that make men out of boys…. It’s about the way the stories of those actions make us feel as human beings”.
The first object lesson in Amazing Tales, that of the Penlee lifeboatmen who were lost in 1981 while trying to rescue the crew and passengers of a storm-stricken ship off the coast of Cornwall, is also the most moving and inspiring.
It involves ordinary men, unhesitatingly doing their duty in a worthwhile cause, and because it took place during the lifetime of most readers, it is not clouded by that miasma of unreality which sometimes attaches to events from past and distant eras.
Their story alone is worth the price of this very readable and counter-cultural multum in parvo — much in little.