THIS book,The Society of Timid Souls,grew out of Polly Morland’s courageous decision to leave her career in broadcasting and become a writer. Books by her on risk and personal development have followed, but it is this volume, with the subtitleHow to be brave, which made her name.
Morland explores what courage is, in nine focused and elegant chapters. She considers courage in its widest forms by asking whether it is something you can teach and learn, or whether it is something that is innate in some people and foreign to others.
She asks whether it is morally good, or whether you can be brave and bad at once. She looks at coldly courageous acts, and at instinctive ones; at professionals, whose trained courage might feel like confidence, and normal individuals who are suddenly thrust into the cauldron of a crisis.
She also discusses political and moral courage, and the worlds of non-violence and anti-corruption, giving us hope not only for individuals, but for the change that courage can bring about in society.
Her interview style is everything you would hope for from a former BBC producer: gentle, probing, and non-judgemental, while being clear in her own opinions and responses. The book is full of memorable human stories, striking quotations, and acute comments.
She draws no tidy conclusions, preferring to emphasise the range of ways in which courage is demonstrated, through more than 90 interviews. Courage, we find, is not the preserve of the golden few, but a more prosaic and wonderful virtue, which is seen often in daily life.
The “timid souls” of the title were a group of cripplingly anxious musicians and actors who gathered in an apartment in New York during the Second World War to perform for each other: as they did, the other members of the group would scream, shout, jeer, and whistle. These methods were, apparently, very effective at helping people overcome performance anxiety — as a Miss Cantwell reported: “I could play it in a boiler factory now.”
Morland starts where you would expect in a book on courage: she interviews people who served and were wounded in Afghanistan, and a bomb-disposal expert who joined an NGO after decades in the British Army, and was seriously wounded by an unmarked Israeli minefield (“Tony, I’m telling you, I’ve lost my foot”).
She also interviews Colonel Tim Collins, whose speech before the Second Iraq War was so widely admired. He talks of how courage can be learnt and taught, before describing the price of courage: that facing death forces you to close doors in your heart, and how each survival makes it harder to open them up again.
She interviews people who choose hobbies that draw on physical courage, which then become obsessions, such as base jumpers, mountaineers, and surfers. It becomes clear that often their physical courage is less impressive than the mental and emotional courage that they need to carry on after they have been the one to find the dead body of their best friend — killed doing the thing they both loved.
Morland also spends time investigating those who do jobs that demand courage as a prerequisite. She interviews a matador about how he faces the bull, and also the colleague and mentor of a British firefighter who was killed fighting an arson attack.
Her conversation with an armed robber who contends that going straight after decades in prison is a more courageous act than robbing banks is fascinating; out of deep personal tragedy, he has chosen the better path, and we long for him to succeed.
Perhaps most impressive of all are those who find themselves caught up in sudden events that demand the greatest courage. In their normality and unpreparedness, they show an unexpected raw courage — which perhaps they did not know they had — and can give us hope that we, too, might dig deeply, and find a similar strength inside ourselves.
What do you do when you are woken in a foreign town by a catastrophic earthquake, and barely escape with your life? What do you say to the press camped on your doorstep, after your daughter has become the first female firefighter to be killed in the line of duty? How do you face the day when you know that the cancer in your body is spreading?
These stories remain with you beyond the last page of the book. Some people are wired for great acts. Most of us are not. Most of us are more timid souls, doing our best with the life that we have been given, responding as well as we can to the slings and arrows of fortune. And that itself is courage — to acknowledge the fear, and carry on, often at great cost.
We might want to add something about the eucharistic community as the place where we learn the language of courage and love. We might wish Morland had come to a clearer conclusion on how courage is caught, and why it matters so much. We might wish that she had spent more time on what happens when courage fails, or when no one takes responsibility for righting wrongs or fetching help, as in the horrifying research on the Bystander Effect, which she presents too briefly.
We will, however, certainly finish our time with the Society of Timid Souls humbled by the people we have met, inspired by the resilience of the human spirit, and proud to be members of the Society ourselves.
The Revd Richard Lamey isRector of St Paul’s, Wokingham, with St Nicholas’s, Embrook, and Woosehill Community Church, Berkshire.
The Society of Timid Souls by Polly Morland is published by Profile Books at £8.99(CT Bookshop £8.10); 9-781-84668-514-9.
The Society of Timid Souls — SOME QUESTIONS Early in the book, Polly Morland states that “our collective nerve has faltered.” Do you think that this is true? If so, why? Which of the book’s stories or examples did you find most compelling? Which did you find the most surprising? Is bravery, whether physical or moral, always good? How might a Christian version of bravery be shaped by the idea of being “God-fearing”? What sorts of courage should Christians be learning today? How might this be achieved? What did you think of the book’s claim that “part of Being Brave is actually just Looking Brave, Acting Brave”? Are there kinds of courage that the book has underplayed? Which stories will you remember from the book? By the end of the book, did you feel part of a Society of Timid Souls?
IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 1 July, we will print extra information about the next book. This is The Rings of Saturnby W. G. Sebald. It is published by Vintage at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £9); 978-0-099-44892-1.
Since it was first published in English in 1998,The Rings of Saturnhas profoundly influenced British literature’s approach to landscape and travel. Sebald’s book is at once a richly woven and digressive account of a walk around the Suffolk countryside, and a meditation on civilisation itself — its aspirations and catastrophes. Punctuated by eerie black-and-white photographs,The Rings of Saturn is a modern masterpiece: lyrical, melancholy, disturbing, and beautiful.
W. G. Sebald was born in 1944, in Wertach im Allgäu, a village in the Bavarian Alps. He moved to Manchester in 1966, before settling in Norfolk, where he would spend the rest of his life, teaching European literature at the University of East Anglia. Sebald won widespread acclaim with a series of prose fictions — among them Vertigo (1999), and Austerlitz (2001). WithThe Rings of Saturn, they contemplate the problems of history, memory, and exile. He was killed in a car crash outside Norwich in 2001.
Books for the next two months:
August:The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
September:The Awesome Journey by David Adam