Amazing Tales for Making Men Out of Boys by Neil Oliver

Neil Oliver is a Scottish historian, archeologist, writer and TV presenter, perhaps best known as the presenter of BBC 2's "Coast" . His new book is an unashamedly nostalgic look at stories of quiet heroism from the distant past to the present day. I heard him interviewed on the Simon Mayo show on BBC Radio 5 the other day and it was one of the best things I heard (or seen) for a long, long time. He is a consummate storyteller and is clearly passionate about his subject. Together with the drama of these moving tales of quiet heroism, this made for quite spellbinding radio.

The below review gives you some idea how powerful the radio interview was. I was moved to tears by his retelling of the Penlee lifeboat tragedy and the heroism of those involved. I'm pretty sure you can download it as a podcast from the BBC web site. I will try to do so myself and post a link to it if I succeed.

Return of the He-man

Last Updated: 12:01am BST 18/05/2008

James Holland reviews Amazing Tales for Making Men Out of Boys by Neil Oliver

A few weeks ago, my six-year-old son came home from school and asked me about 'Falcon Scott', an explorer who had been mentioned in class that day. He meant, of course, Scott of the Antarctic, the explorer who so nearly became the first man to reach the South Pole almost 100 years ago, and who paid with his life for his heroics.

I told him what I knew, but anxious to reinforce this interest in a great British hero, I then tried to find an appropriate book about him. While Neil Oliver would no doubt be delighted to learn that Scott's tale is being told in state primary schools, he would, I suspect, be less surprised to know that there is no children's book about Scott in print.

I look forward to the day, a few years down the line, when my son will surely devour Oliver's retelling of the tale in his entrancing new book, which, despite its retro look, clearly based on The Dangerous Book for Boys, is a thoroughly fresh and stand-alone collection of stories rather than an ironic nod to boys' publishing of the past.

Oliver grew up with the tales of Scott and other heroes and although they clearly inspired his youthful heart, they also encapsulated the kind of male aspirations which were, by the 1970s, giving way to a modern world in which Britain had a far less prominent part to play.

There is an unmistakable wistfulness running through the book that only adds to the romanticism of the storytelling.

What Oliver - the raven-haired Scot from the BBC's excellent Coast series - so admires is the sense of honour and stoic fortitude that were not so long ago considered essential attributes for any self-respecting British man.

'It's about placing value on something else, something much bigger than the self,' he says, an attitude that is now the exception rather than something that arrived in every young man's life, as he puts it, 'along with an Adam's apple, a deeper voice and the need to shave.'

With Amazing Tales he reminds readers that stories of past heroics in the face of overwhelming odds can still inspire and teach us.

It is these themes of bravery, honour and duty that run through all the episodes he has chosen, yet there is an admirable lack of jingoism or Empire nostalgia; even the Zulu Wars are told from both sides.

Several of the stories are not about British men at all, but about native American Indians, French Foreign Legionnaires, and the last Byzantine Emperor at Constantinople. One of the most moving stories is that of the Penlee lifeboat disaster of 1981, when the crew plunged into one of the most fearsome storms ever seen off the Cornish coast to save a stricken vessel.

Despite the appalling danger as winds pushed them ever closer to lethally jagged rocks, they set about their task without a moment's indecision. Reading about their fate, it was hard not to feel a lump rise in the throat.

Another emotive maritime tale is that of the sinking of HMS Birkenhead off the coast of South Africa in 1852. A troopship carrying mostly young recruits, she hit rocks in shark-infested waters and soon began to sink. Rather than panicking, the soldiers' commanding officer ordered his men first to help get the women and children on board the three available lifeboats and then to parade on deck as the ship continued to go down.

Even once the captain gave the word to abandon ship, Lieutenant-Colonel Seton insisted his men keep their rigid discipline, fearing that if they jumped in the water before the lifeboats were safely away, they would be unable to resist the urge to try and clamber aboard themselves and thus put the occupants' lives at risk once more.

Not one man wavered, even though they knew that once the Birkenhead slipped beneath the waves, they would fall prey to the sharks swarming around the sinking ship; which is precisely what happened. Yet not a single woman or child lost their life. This sacrifice, aped thereafter and perhaps most memorably during the loss of the Titanic, became known as the 'Birkenhead Drill'.

Many of the other tales have been told countless times before, whether it be Nelson at Trafalgar or the Spartans at Thermopylae, yet even these are recounted with a freshness that breathes new life into them, not least because Oliver has an astute empathy with those about whom he writes. This is especially true of Scott, his great hero, and whose story he skilfully weaves through all these tales.

With the very best popular history, much comes down to the quality of writing, and this is certainly the case here, for Oliver is a wonderful storyteller. This is a book told from the heart with both a passion and breathless awe for the deeds recounted that leaps from every page.

Sumptuously illustrated and by turns moving and inspiring, it is a joy from start to finish. I defy any reader, whether they be aged nine or 90, not to walk with a slightly straighter back after putting down this book.
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