Fake Heroes by Otto English

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

 History is fickle. Not only is it fickle, it is notoriously selective. It has been said that only the victors get to write it and that is largely true.

Otto English has given us a provocative book. The stories he tells about ten characters from the pages of history may or may not give new insight into their actions and characters. By saying “may or may not” allows for the idea that the elements of character and actions English describes may already be well known. All he has done is bring them together using a thematic approach for each chapter. He also highlights only the negative sides of their character sometimes very vehemently. Hence the use of “false heroes” in the title of the book.

To give some form of balance, he often introduces other characters of history whose stories may not be well known and whose actions and personalities are the opposite of the so-called heroes that English calls fake.

English contends that the fake heroes he identifies altered the course of history. To be honest we don’t know if they did or didn’t for we have no real idea of what history would have looked like without their contribution. It is only conjecture on his part that they altered anything. It is more likely that they made history because they have been included in the historical record. This includes the lesser-known characters whom English often offers as shining lights in contrast to his false heroes.

This highlights the fickleness of history that I referred to at the beginning of this review. For history has no right or wrong stories or directions. It is a continuum that exists because humanity wants its stories told and analysed. More often than not, it is the loudest voices, the strongest personalities and the ability for some characters of history to gather supporters who keep the flame of their hero alive long after the person has died.

It could be said that rather than being fake as English contends, the heroes under examination are victims of what their supporters have done to promote their story and contribute through the written and oral historical record. Society at different times looks for stories about strong personalities whose life can help inspire and overcome the issues being faced at a particular time. Any weaknesses of personality and character tend to be overlooked in favour of the more dominant elements that provide the example of courage and strength that is thought to be needed.

English skilfully reminds us that the memory, collective and individual, can play tricks on us. We often remember what we want to remember rather than what actually happened. This can cause havoc with the passage of history in its many forms. It is only in recent times that we are gaining more understanding of the different voices within the historical narrative as a whole and how we need to draw those threads together to have a greater understanding of the world and its diverse cultures and peoples.

Otto English is the pen name of author and journalist Andrew Scott. From 2010, Scott began writing and tweeting about politics and history. Gaining attention for an itinerant blog, he moved into journalism and has since written for Politico, New Statesman, Daily Mail and many other publications.

Fake Heroes: Ten False Icons and How They Altered the Course of History

by Otto English

(2023)

Welbeck Publishing

ISBN: 978 180279 590 5

$34.99; 406pp

 

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