Saturday, January 30, 2010

My heroes in Postman's Park by Christopher Reid

My heroes in Postman's Park, by Christopher Reid

Christopher Reid
Saturday 30 January 2010

find it difficult to nominate any one person as my hero. Heroism seems to me a more common, if hidden, quality than is widely supposed. It may even be a defining characteristic of humanity, although instances of its opposites – cowardice, selfishness – flourish around us.

When I contemplate the word "hero", no particular face or figure, no documented life – with its compromising flaws and peccadilloes – comes to mind. I do, however, have a topographical focus. This is the patch of green in the City of London that has come to be known as Postman's Park, from its proximity to what was the General Post Office across King ­Edward Street.
The park stands on the old burial ground of St Botolph's Aldersgate. Along one edge there is a sort of ­arcade or loggia, like a single side of a cloister, lined with ceramic plaques memorialising the bravery of individuals who died while saving the lives of others. I say "individuals", and of course that is what they were when they lived, but little or nothing is now known about them beyond the courageous actions recorded tersely in the Arts and Crafts lettering of these plaques. If we did know more, then we might have to take into account that X, who, snatching a stranger from a river, was drowned himself, was also a rogue and wife-beater; or that Y, who rescued children from a fire but was ­fatally burned in the process, had the morals of a slut.
In literary terms, these citations are not unlike the gleanings of newspaper reports from 1906 that Félix Fénéon collected privately and which were published not long ago as Novels in Three Lines. But whereas Fénéon's treatment emphasises the brutality and folly of human behaviour, the shrine in Postman's Park, which the painter GF Watts paid for just a few years earlier, presents, in a contradictory spirit but without false piety, reasons to be humbled and hopeful. So my almost vanished, multiple heroes are to be found in this sacred place.







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