A hero is a person of distinguished courage or ability, admired for his or her deeds and noble qualities, who in the opinion of others, has performed a heroic act that is regarded as a model or ideal that we should each aspire too. Karl Marx eloquently stated “Men make their own history but not in circumstances of their choosing”.
It is hard to imagine the events that surrounded a woman like Ellen Wilkinson. Born in 1891 and standing under five feet in height, she went on to win two parliamentary elections and become one of Britain’s first female Members of Parliament, representing the Labour Party in two heavily industrialised constituencies within each of which there existed a myriad of social complications.
In the 1924 General Election, Wilkinson was elected to represent the North Eastern iron and steel making constituency of Middlesbrough East. In the House of Commons she was given the nickname ‘Red Ellen’, for both her hair colour and political views. After losing her seat in the 1931 election, ‘Red Ellen’ went on to gain another seat in Parliament in the 1935 General Election. On this occasion, she was chosen to represent the Jarrow constituency.
Being a supporter of various working class causes, including the famous Jarrow Crusade in the post Second World War Labour Government, Ellen Wilkinson made history by becoming the first woman to serve as Minister for Education. Her position saw reforms passed through parliament which included free milk provision for every child. Even in death, the normally conservative Times newspaper described her as being “a passionate, intelligent old-school socialist”.
According to the BBC, “Liberte!” was the last word spoken by the heroine of Churchill’s elite spy network, The Special Operations Executive (SOE), before being executed by her Nazi captors during the Second World War. On 13th September 1944, the glamorous British agent, code named ”Madeline”, was shot dead at Dachau concentration camp. Despite being tortured by the Gestapo during her 10 months of imprisonment, she revealed nothing of use to her captors.
For three months, “Madeline” single-handedly ran a cell of spies across Paris, frequently changing her appearance and alias until she was eventually captured. Despite being the first female radio operator to be sent into Nazi occupied France, code name “Madeline” became the last essential link with London after the German occupation had destroyed the SOE’s spy network.
In stark contrast to what might be expected, “Madeline” was in fact the code name of Noor Inayat Khan, a Muslim woman of mixed Indian and American heritage who, having been educated in Paris when war broke out, travelled to London where she and her brother dedicated themselves to the fight against Fascism.
Her fluent French, quiet dedication and training in radio transmitting were quickly spotted by SOE officers and, with the average life expectancy of a British spy behind enemy lines being only a few weeks, Noor Inayat Khan joined Winston Churchill’s unconventional ‘outfit’ in 1943 with the instructions to help “set Europe ablaze”.
Andrew Grimes of the Manchester Evening News was correct, when commemorating the death of Bolton Wonderers legend Nat “The Lion of Vienna” Lofthouse (pictured) in January; ”Nat Lofthouse was not a philosopher, but the trousers he wore at his workplace were, like those of all his workmates, ragged. It was as if in those days the club tailor took a pair of cheap, long flannel drawers and abbreviated them below the knees with a quick snip of the scissors”.
According to the Guardian, Lofthouse was “born in Bolton, bred in Bolton, and a Bolton Wanderers player from first to last, who scored 285 goals in more than 500 games for the club. For England, he scored 30 in 33 appearances, while being capped 33 times for the England national football team between 1950 and 1958, scoring 30 goals and giving himself one of the greatest goals-per-game ratios of any player to represent England at the highest level.”
This former Bevin Boy who was born in 1925 played football at a time when a “footballer earned his wages”, in comparison to the millions which are spent now. As Grimes rightly pointed out, in those days being a skilled player meant that footballers did not have to resemble “a fancy advertisement for some manufacturer of microwave ovens” as there was no commercial call for players like Nat Lofthouse “to double as a bouncing sandwich board”.
As the Guardian concluded, “Lofthouse belonged to an age when football was played and watched by the working class”, as many British families can still testify, and “for all the tough tackles and juddering shoulder-charges, the game had a warmth and humour about it, and players respected one another”.
So in this age of reality TV, parliamentary scandals and flamboyant athletes, perhaps the time has come to re-examine our perspective of the ‘hero’ and to wipe the slate clean of selective memory and subjectivity, so that people are no longer prevented from gaining access to those men and women whose “distinguished courage or abilities” have truly helped to shape our everyday lives. As the British playwright Terence Rattigan stated in his highly acclaimed drama The Deep Blue Sea “The world is a dark enough place for even a spark to be welcome!”
Hussein Al-Alak is journalist and founder of the Iraq Solidarity Campaign
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This post was written by Hussein Al-alak