I know that these aren’t strictly literary heroes, but since I’m covering my heroes generally, I figured I might as well throw them in. Garfield the cat and Grommit of Wallace and Grommit fame are up there as two of my greatest heroes of all time. I mean, you could make a loose case for arguing that Garfield is a literary figure… of sorts… but it would be a very, very loose case and I’m not really going to try and make it.
I was introduced to Garfield by a friend at school, who for the purpose of anonymity we’ll call Galadriel, in little cartoon strips that would be emailed to me usually at the culmination of a particularly ridiculous and frustrating day, and quickly got the bug. I was given the classic volumes 1 and 2 to read prior to taking Physics AS-Level, on the sound and sensible principal that the wonders of the universe and, more to the point, the failure of said wonders to give you the right answer when you wanted them to, were really nothing compared to the need to have a decent slice (or bowl, or bucket, or whatever the largest vessel was) of lasagna on your table. Make no mistake, I have never encountered a fictional character more thrillingly cynical, nasty, lazy and overweight as Garfield, and the sheer joy taken in all of the above is utterly infectious. I’m not even going to attempt to claim that the cackling it induces is anything other than totally malicious, and that is what makes it such a guilty, wonderful pleasure. Garfield became a permanent fixture on my shelf the same day that I gave myself an asthma attack on the Piccadilly line for laughing too hard; he then became required reading for at least an hour prior to any university paper I ever sat. I should add that Garfield is nothing without the characters that surround him, of whom, in its own quaint way, my favourite remains Pooky, Garfield’s much-beloved teddy bear. An utterly inanimate object, Pooky is the only creature for which Garfield shows any warmth, probably because he is inanimate and thus incapable of annoying his owner.
At the other end of the spectrum… it has been my long-held ambition to evolve into the non-plasticine, non-dog version of Grommit. Where Garfield is an entirely malicious, manipulative creature focused entirely on the next meal, Grommit is the living embodiment of patience, tolerance, hard work and sensible eating. With one eyebrow he can inform the world around him that yes, he is aware that his owner is making a very foolish mistake that’s going to end in disaster, but that he, Grommit, will stick by him through anything that’s heading their way and won’t complain or ask for praise, but will merely assist in solving the oncoming disaster because he’s loyal and loving and that’s what he does – so sayeth the eyebrow. More to the point, he’s the uber-techie, capable of making anything out of anything, which is the essential techie dream; always with a gadget to hand, silent and focused and unfazed by anything from rogue penguins to giant rabbits. Where Garfield induces cackles of malign cynicism, Grommit induces the kind of reckless, mouth-aching grinning that comes from knowing where the story is going, and wanting to see how on earth he’s going to solve this one.
I know it’s a tad peculiar to have two fictional characters as heroes; but then again, the world is sadly lacking heroes who are quite as heroic as the ones that come out of the imagination. Most of the real people who I cheer for as heroic are long-dead figures from the past or names half-glimpsed in the corner of a book about doctors or activists or scientists who stood up and said, ‘this is wrong; let me make it right’ and received a footnote worth of praise in a political tome in the back of a library. When I think of people who I’d class as living heroes, I always end up thinking of a story I read about a team of fewer than ten Red Cross workers in Rwanda, who stayed during the worst of the genocide when everyone, including the U.N., had fled, and would stand in front of gunmen and say, ‘we will treat all, regardless of who they are’ and not back down; or of the firemen at the Chernobyl disaster who were given a shovel full of sand and told that they had four seconds to throw their sand onto burning uranium, after which their exposure would be too high, and they would die – and yet, knowing this, they still fought the fire. I don’t know their names, and probably never will, and their stories are so drenched in horror as to remove any flavour of inspiration and just put numbness into the soul. Grommit and Garfield, a fictional cat and a fictional dog, are far more comfortable heroes to pin to the back wall of my imagination, and if nothing else, are extremely good at lowering the blood pressure just before an exam…