Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Respect is due: a motley crew of heroes

A mixed bag, this week:

Henry Hodge, who died last week at the young age of 65, was an inspirational lawyer and one of the outstanding lawyers of his generation (1). His great success as a lawyer, however, should not blind us to the thread that ran through Henry's career, namely his commitment to use the law and his considerable talents in the service of those less fortunate, with the aim of making the law fair and accessible to all.

This commitment was much in evidence when I first met Hodge in 1974. At that time he was a newly qualified solicitor, working for the Child Poverty Action Group, where he developed the successful test-case strategy. This challenged government decisions on benefits through the courts. He was frequently successful and on more than one occasion the government was forced to change the law and rules as a result of victories he achieved.

We're quick to write off lawyers as cynical chisellers who take advantage of other people's misfortunes. And most of the time they are. Some of them are human beings, however, who do some good.

On a more elevated note:

John Tolos, "The Golden Greek", who has died aged 78, was one of professional wrestling's finest "heels" – a villain in wrestling parlance - for most of his 40-year career (1). He was a legend in southern California, where his rivalry with "Classy" Freddie Blassie, the self-proclaimed "King of Men" (Independent obituary, 11 June 2003), produced one of wrestling's greatest and most copied angles.

On 8 May 1971, at Los Angeles' Grand Olympic Auditorium, Blassie received a Wrestler of the Year award supposedly voted for by the fans. Tolos, visibly seething at ringside, had captured the Americas heavyweight title from Blassie the night before, when the ring collapsed and knocked Blassie out. That was the culmination of a year-long feud that saw Tolos use a python in one match, and Blassie bite Tolos' head, drawing blood, on Steve Allen's television show. Now, as Blassie addressed his fans, Tolos reached into the ring doctor's bag, left conveniently open, and threw powder into his face. Blassie fell to the mat screaming, covering his eyes, while Tolos destroyed his trophy and the television announcer Dick Lane yelled that Blassie had been blinded.

The ring doctor explained that Tolos had thrown Monsel's powder, used to staunch cuts in boxing before its toxicity to the eyes saw it banned, and that Blassie might lose sight in one eye. In reality, it was talcum, and Blassie, face bandaged, went into hospital for a scheduled knee operation. For the next three months, Blassie rehabbed his knee and wrestled in Japan, while Tolos fought a series of Blassie's champions, intent on avenging his perfidy. After Blassie miraculously regained his sight, they met on 27 August in the Los Angeles Coliseum, and 25,847 fans, still the California record, saw Blassie bloody Tolos with more biting, then win by smashing a chair over his head.

Because old school wrestling rocks.

And, finally, another proper hero:

Although Wing Commander Kenneth William Mackenzie shot down a number of German planes during and after the Battle of Britain, he will always be remembered for one particular incident over the English Channel.

He was flying a Hawker Hurricane, its ammunition spent. His quarry was a Messerschmitt 109 fighter which tried to evade him by diving almost to sea level, intent on heading for France and safety. Mackenzie knocked it into the sea by the extraordinarily dangerous move – very definitely not recommended in any training manual – of using his plane’s wing to shear its tail off, sending it spiralling out of control. When the German plane went into the waves, Mackenzie nursed his damaged craft back to England, crash-landing in a field near Folkestone in Kent.

His highly unorthodox manoeuvre earned him a Distinguished Flying Cross “for skill and gallantry”, the awed admiration of colleagues, and the nickname of “Super Mac”. The incident instantly established him as one of the aces of 501 Squadron, which he had joined less than two weeks earlier.

I'm glad they specified he was flying a Hurricane at the time, as we always imagine Brits in their Spits, not the plane that formed the backbone of the RAF during the Battle of Britain. Nothing more to say on that one.

1 - ""Sir Henry Hodge: Lawyer who championed the causes of children and immigrants and later became a High Court judge," by Maggie Rae, published in The Independent, 30th of June, 2009. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/sir-henry-hodge-lawyer-who-championed-the-causes-of-children-and-immigrants-and-later-became-a-high-court-judge-1724490.html)
2 - "John Tolos: Wrestler celebrated as one of the finest ring villains," by Michael Carlson, published in The Independent, 30th of June, 2009. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/john-tolos-wrestler-celebrated-as-one-of-the-finest-ring-villains-1724492.html)
3 - "Wing Commander Ken Mackenzie: Decorated pilot who rammed a Messerschmitt in mid-air during the Battle of Britain," by David McKittrick, published in The Independent, 29th of June, 2009. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/wing-commander-ken-mackenzie-decorated-pilot-who-rammed-a-messerschmitt-in-midair-during-the-battle-of-britain-1723088.html)

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