Paul O’Flinn


Them and Us in Literature


12. Superman, the Seven Gates of Thebes, and You

What everyone in this country. is agreed on is our need for firm and decisive leadership at the top, the Daily Mail said recently. (The Daily Mail uses the word “everyone” a lot, but in its own distinct way. Roughly translated into English it seems to mean the “Daily Mail”.) We used to have such leadership and then the country did alright. Now we don’t have any and the place is in a mess. We last had firm and decisive leadership during the Second World War. Its name was Winston Churchill and it worked wonders. Here is a typical recent assessment of it, in the Preface to Patrick Cosgrave’s Churchill at War: “The book is, in the author’s view, the story of how Churchill had defeated Germany by the end of 1940.”

Defeating the Nazis singlehanded inside a year with no apparent help from all you idle mob out there is, you will agree, something of a feat, and not something any of our present lot of politicians could be trusted to repeat. Everyone (i.e. the Daily Mail) used to think Enoch might be the man. But then he suggested voting Labour so everyone (i.e. ditto) went off him a bit and we’re back at square one, looking for a leader to put the country back on its feet and the workers back on their knees. Without one we’re sunk.

The middle classes and their spokesmen do tend to go on a bit about the sanctity and supremacy of the individual but when it comes to the crunch they appear to regard the individual and indeed the whole mass of individuals as irrelevant. All you really need is one Great Man. In fact all history, I once heard a university lecturer insist, is the history of Great Men. Hence the present spate of calls for a leader, a Great Man, to take up the reins of history and get Britain moving again.

Meanwhile the job of all of the rest of us is to be silent spectators, waiting for a Great Man to come along and tell us to jump to it. The novelist William Golding put it this way:

New ages, new schools, new floods of literature do not emerge by a process of gradualism from what went before. Nor are major changes in awareness merely the work of economics or even the accumulation of knowledge. They have always come in the first place through the medium of one man. [1]

In a sense this is slightly consoling for us men, because it does suggest that once an epoch at least one of us makes a decent contribution. But it seems from this that you ladies have contributed bugger all since history began. Useless lot of parasites. Never mind, keep ironing the shirts and you’ll get your reward in the next world.

A generation ago the German writer Bertolt Brecht answered all the above rubbish in a poem called A Worker Reads History. This is it.

Who built the seven gates of Thebes?
The books are filled with the names of Kings.
Was it Kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stone?
And Babylon, so many times destroyed,
Who built the city up each time? In which of Lima’s houses,
That city glittering with gold, lived those who built it?
In the evening when the Chinese wall was finished
Where did the masons go? Imperial Rome
Is full of arcs of triumph. Who reared them up? Over whom
Did the Caesars triumph? Byzantium lives in song,
Were all her dwellings palaces? And even in Atlantis of the legend
The night the sea rushed in,
The drowning men still bellowed for their slaves.
Young Alexander conquered India.
He alone?
Caesar beat the Gauls.
Was there not even a cook in his army?
Philip of Spain wept as his fleet
Was sunk and destroyed. Were there no other tears?
Frederick the Great triumphed in the Seven Years’ War. Who
Triumphed with him?

Each page a victory,
At whose expense the victory ball?
Every ten years a great man,
Who paid the piper?

So many particulars,
So many questions. [2]

Enough said. Even at the lowest level, a poem like this can give you a good laugh the next time a TV quizmaster assures you that, say, Edward the Confessor built Westminster Abbey or Nelson won the Battle of Trafalgar or Stephenson made the first locomotive.

The poem also raises questions about how history is made and who makes it. A way of answering those questions is to look at another example. Everyone knows, as the Daily Mail might say, that Sir Humphry Davy invented the miners’ safety lamp, thus singlehandedly saving thousands of lives and earning the miners eternal gratitude (in so far as miners, a graceless lot, are capable of gratitude.) Yet push past this myth and you find Dave Douglass in Pit Life in County Durham describing the miners’ “stubborn refusal to adopt the Davy lamp which continued until late in the nineteenth century”. You find that miners disliked the Davy lamp for two good reasons. First, its light was in the early rears much poorer than the traditional candles. So it cut heavily into the miners earnings because in the gloom they loaded more, stone in with the coal and hence had more confiscated from their wages by the mine owners. Secondly, the new lamp meant, so the owners insisted, that places previously too dangerous to work by the light of naked flames could now be tackled and were to be tackled. At once, deaths by suffocation and gassing began to rise, so that far from saving miners’ lives there were in fact more deaths in the coalfields in the years immediately after the introduction of the Davy lamp than in the years before.

Thinking about the story of the Davy lamp you begin to get a glimpse of how history really works. Out goes the toiling, lonely genius making a brilliant discovery and changing the lives of a thick and sleepy people. Instead you see peoples’ lives and work uncovering problems, solutions tried, tested by mass experience, found wanting, resisted, adapted, tried again, changed again, fought against, modified, fought for and finally accepted. The men digging underground today live marginally safer lives not because of a Great Man but because behind them lie the experience, the skills and the militancy of millions of miners and their organisations over generations. It’s these things which have shaped the miners’ history and the conditions under which they work. What’s true for the miners is true for the rest of us too.

What’s true for the rest of us is not true of the comics we were offered as kids. Our role in the Superman sort of comic is that of innocent bystander, helpless and panic stricken, incapable of doing anything against Mandrill or the Thing from Planet X or whatever. We’re only saved when Superman strips down to his Y-fronts and gets to work. Superman hits all problems on the jaw and they go away, so happily we can carry on living exactly the same sort of jives as before without the need for any radical, disturbing changes.

Turn to cowboy films and the pattern is the same. Gary Cooper, John Wayne and Henry Fonda are three of the best known cowboy actors, and three of their most famous films were, respectively, High Noon, Stagecoach and My Darling Clementine. All three films feature the classic Western situation: the town cowed and terrorised by badmen, held in a grip of fear, but liberated at the end by the one superman who’s big enough to shoot it out.

Any overlap between this version of events and the true history of the American West is of course purely accidental. But what’s interesting in these films is the presentation of the 98.4% of us who aren’t supermen or baddies. When Black Jake and his cronies ride into town and kick open the saloon door we tend to gulp our shot of whiskey down and nip out the back. For most of the rest of the flick we skulk in alleyways, shifty-eyed, saying “But mister, I gotta wife and kids” when anyone asks us to do anything. However, in the last reel, when John Wayne is kicking the crooks in the crutch and restoring Christian civilisation we sidle out gratefully into the sunlight ready for the final scene and the credits, not that we really deserve any. If that’s what we’re like, no wonder Churchill had to beat the Germans all by himself.

This myth about the way Great Men can take the world by the scruff of the neck and change it is unfortunate in that it contradicts another great myth which says the world never changes – it’s always been the same because of Human Nature. This extremely boring myth has been dealt with in earlier sections so hopefully it isn’t necessary to have a go at it again. But it’s worth noting that it’s an idea that fills a lot of the entertainment we’re offered.

The film One Million Years B.C., for example, was mainly built around Raquel Welch’s breasts but also around the notion that then as now we were all suburban bourgeois Daily Mail readers: greedy, centrally concerned about private property, sexually repressed and capable of approximately rational action only when firmly led by one man.

At a jokey level the Flintstones cartoon films push the same idea. Nothing has ever changed. Things have always been the same. Prehistoric man was worried about second hand car values, liked nothing better than hamburger and french fries and was content on a Saturday afternoon to watch the ball game on TV. Meanwhile his good lady wife in the kitchen fluttered about dress patterns and her new hair-do, and the kids, well, heck, they were just kids.

When we break away from these myths flogged by their entertainment industry and turn to the truth the difference is, as usual, complete. When ordinary people – for example, a group of old women from the villages of eastern Nigeria – are asked for once about history, their own history, they are aware of it as progress, as change. Here are some of the things those women said: “Life these days is more simple and better than the days when I was young” [3]; “Life has got better this time than my mother’s day because civilisation has brought into the world many good changes in life” [4]; Life has completely changed and it is in my opinion better than the days I was born” [5]; “Things are different in our days than they were in mother’s days. Civilisation has brought in many changes into our lives now. So that we do not have to live in fear and superstition.” [6]

So against the myth that things have always been the same we need to throw our knowledge of history as change. Against the myth that change can only come from Great Men we need to place our sense of the things that the rest of us have achieved. We hauled the blocks of stone at Thebes. We rebuilt Babylon. We fought to make the mines safer. And we defeated the Nazis. Armed with a knowledge of our own strength and our own history there are no problems we can’t solve, from economic collapse on the one hand to the resurgence of Fascism in Chile on the other.

There’s some of that history in a Pete Seeger song called Talking Union. It’s about the successful fight of American car workers in 1941 to unionise the Ford factories. The song’s typical of the sort of lessons that lie around embedded at all sorts of odd points in our culture, left there as a record of previous struggles. They’re there for the taking, to be used in continuing struggles. Here’s how the song ends:

But out in Detroit, here’s what they found,
And out in Pittsburgh, here’s what they found,
And out in Akron, here’s what they found,
And up in Toronto, here’s what they found:
That if you don’t let Red-baiting break you up,
And if you don’t let vigilantes break you up,
And if you don’t let race hatred break you up,
And if you don’t let stool-pigeons break you up,
You’ll win ... what I mean ...
Take it easy ... but take it! [7]




1. Times Literary Supplement, June 17,1960.

2. Quoted in Ken Coates and Richard Silburn, Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen, Penguin 1970, p.23.

3. Iris Andreski, Old Wives’ Tales: Life-Stories from Ibibioland, London 1970, p.79.

4. ibid., p.114.

5. ibid., p.139.

6. ibid., p.146.

7. Words from Edith Fowke & Joe Glazer, Songs of Work and Protest, p.24.


Last updated on 13.8.2001