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Unlikely Hero

“When I was very young, I used to say ‘I’.
Later on, I said ‘I and Mozart’
Then ‘Mozart and I’
Now I say ‘Mozart.’ ”
Charles Gounod, French composer (1818 – 1893)

At some stage in life one reaches a point where one realises that true greatness has escaped one, and forever will, that it’s only bestowed on a favoured few such as Mozart and the like, and that you, despite your most intense endeavours, will never reach those heights and if lucky, might at best be recorded by history as a minor footnote if at all.  That’s the time to drop your ego, pick up your maturity, applaud from the sidelines as the race of the greats passes you by, and reach out for a hero.  By hero here I don’t mean Richard Feynman’s everyday hero, the man or woman who is a hero by being a good husband or wife or parent or colleague, as heroic and trying as that may be.  Neither do I mean superhero/antihero hybrids like Darth Vader or Kylo Ren which you can amply find in Lego sets along with their spaceships.1  No.  With hero I mean the classic hero whose stuffing awes on the grand scale and inspires dedicatory tributes like public statues and Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony.2


Kylo Ren’s Space Ship

But where to find a hero?  You can’t just walk up to a person in the street and ask:  “Are you a hero?”  Well, you could, but you’ll get answers, so don’t.  You might get action too, so don’t.  Heroes are scarce.  They reserve their heroism for the big arenas, preferring macro operation to micro fiddling.  Heroes rescue on the national/planetary/galactic sphere, leveraging conduct to the symbolic plane, often totally overlooking individuals in their lofty missions.3  In fact, you could seriously irritate a hero by venturing too closely to his orbit.  So tread gingerly in your hero-seeking mission.

As heroes were proving hard to find, the twisted thought generator in my mind fired up.  Why not bestow hero status upon someone despite themself?  That’s the way animists operate.4  That would be the solution.  I would bestow hero status upon a certain individual for a few moments, during which I would show due deference and even ingratiate myself, and having been thus anointed with hero-presence, I would recompose myself and continue my life as it was.

But on whom to bestow hero status?  Just the person came when I least expected it.  I was browsing through the newspaper when I read that the President of Madeira himself would be visiting Cape Town.  He, my mind decreed, would do as a hero as well as anyone.  Look, the president of the Madeira archipelago is an important president, having to govern islands with 350 000 insufferable archipelagic temperaments and Cristiano Ronaldo’s.5,6  Also, to my mother’s eyes, he is an even more important president than most, apart possibly from Donald Trump and the President of Uzbekistan.7  That’s because she lives in Madeira and has never met him but considers him to be an honest, highly cultured, handsome, quasi corrupt-free politician doing his best.  Imagine her delight if I were to call her from Cape Town with the news that I met her president… here!  She would be thrilled!


Dr Albuquerque, President of Madeira


Superstar and President

So, I set about strategizing to meet the president.  First, I would accept the invitation to the gala function.  The President of Madeira would likely enter the hall through some antechamber with the usual coterie of bodyguards and dignitaries and somebodies.  I would be standing in line with the washed populace waiting for my turn to shake his hand.  The president would slowly work the line, and as my hero approached, my emotions would rise in my breast.  I would then compose myself, smile, ingratiate myself, shake his hand, exchange some trite platitudes and then be overcome with pride and fervour as he moved on.  That would be my moment.  That’s how I envisioned my hero-meeting scenario, and I lived my life romanticising it until the gala evening.

On the designated day, we were all in the hall expecting the president, but he was late, which of course is a hero’s prerogative.  As long as they save at the last moment, and heroes do seem to delay their saving for the last critical juncture – all is fine.8   My anticipation slightly deflated, I drifted into the bar area just off the hall’s antechamber to get a drink.  There was quite a throng there, chatting and hero-waiting.  I stood around exchanging banter and eventually got my drink. As I pivoted around from the bar counter, drink in hand, most unexpectedly, there he was, surrounded by suits, so close behind me I almost bumped into him.  In front of me in person stood Dr. Miguel Albuquerque, the president of Madeira.  Now that was not in the script.  Heroes aren’t supposed to creep up on one like that.  It’s not proper protocol.  Heroes are supposed to make a grand entrance of sorts.  But some don’t.  The president stretched his hand out to me.  Quite off guard, I juggled my drink in a gauche way and shook it.  The president smiled and genially said the usual, whatever that was.  I breathlessly replied in the usual, whatever that was.  He looked me squarely in the eyes as he spoke, but then gradually started to dart his eyes over the room to ‘work it’ as I think it’s called in the political trade.  Who was next?  Fearing his imminent slipping away, and knowing that much is made of his piano playing, I asked him what he played, expecting Mozart preferably, but I’d settle for Gounod.  “I play what I feel like playing on the day,” said the President, shrugging his shoulders and dismissing my question with a grin.  “Of course, that’s what one should always play,” I dumbly got in as he turned to continue his procession.  If ever you meet a hero you’ll notice they operate in the immediate future; there’s always the next to attend to.  So don’t feel slighted.9


President at the Piano

That was my hero moment, and it was over.  A warm feeling did indeed wash over me as I trained my eyes on the President’s back vanishing into people and the next morning’s society pages.  The next day, all agog, I phoned Mum to tell her about my talismanic meeting with my hero, her president.  But the washing machine was on and she had to run to the stove as the pot was steaming.  There had also been an incident with Aunt Maria’s rowdy barflies which had her in a tizz.  And in all of that, the import of the moment, a moment I had carefully cultivated to a pinnacle to relate to Mum, evaporated with the very steam of the pot to which she was now running.  It contained Açorda à Madeirense, a rather everyday Madeiran dish.



  1. The Incredible Hulk falls in the same category, although I don’t recall his having the need for a spaceship. Incidentally, just to put Richard Feynman (Nobel Prize physicist 1918-1988) right, it’s actually The Incredible Hulk who is the hero, not his pants presser, public image manager, manicurist etc.


    The Incredible Hulk – hero or anti-hero?

  2. But not to Napoleon I (1769-1821) to whom it was originally dedicated. Napoleon is not everyone’s idea of a hero, neither was he Beethoven’s, who retracted his third symphony’s initial dedication to Napoleon after the latter proved unworthy, dedicating it to the non-specific ‘memory of a great man’ instead.
  3. Like Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), say, who was so busy crafting his vision for the new world order in his Social Contract that he neglected his own family in the process.
  4. In trance sessions, animists project magical qualities upon an inanimate object, which thereby acquires a mystical status for the duration of a ceremony during which people dance around it and revere, after which it reverts to being a normal object.
  5. I should know. My origins are from there.  As for Ronaldo, many consider him insufferable, especially football defenders.
  6. To make matters clear, Cristiano Ronaldo is a mere superstar, not to be confused with a hero. He is such a great superstar that there’s talk of renaming Madeira’s airport after him.  Naming airports after soccer players has a precedent: Belfast has an airport named after George Best (1946-2005).  This is what nations have to resort to when they don’t produce composers such as Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849), after whom the Warsaw Airport is named, or Franz Liszt (1811-1886), after whom the airport in Budapest is named, or for that matter geniuses like Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), after whom Rome airport is named.
  7. Uzbekistan is one of only two doubly-landlocked countries in the world, which strikes an islander like my mother as odd.
  8. I think it’s known as ‘instilling suspense for effect’ or ‘building up to a climax’ in the rescuing field.
  9. Despite my jibes, the president is an engaging politician loved by most.