Amazing Tales For Making Men Out of Boys

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Amazing Tales for Making Men Out of Boys, Neil Oliver, book review“There was a time not so very long ago when boys were taught to be men” writes author, archaeologist and broadcaster Neil Oliver, and “part of the education of boys came from reading tales of brave and selfless deeds”. Not so any more. “It’s rubbish being a British man at the moment…nowadays the rest of the world sees British men as the performing seals of George W Bush’s Wild West Show. We’re the sick men of Europe too with our lazy fat guts and our binge-drinking.” He also opines that nothing grand or challenging that we do now is simply for the sake of it; nothing is important unless it is done live on air or filmed to be broadcast to the masses – perhaps a strange complaint from a man who makes his living from such media. But while being an archaeologist in Scottish winters, growing hero hair and appearing on TV in armour and wielding swords may be a little bit manly, Oliver is more interested in manliness on a much grander scale and how stories about such manliness could be an antidote to his despair for the youth of today. Following on the heels of the Dangerous Book for Boys, he therefore presents his own collection of material in Amazing Tales For Making Men Out Of Boys, intended to inspire younger male readers in particular. I have recently read Caitlin Moran’s How To Be A Woman, so you could think of this as its ideal partner – How To Be a Man.

As far as Oliver is concerned the greatest hero and manliest man of them all is Robert Falcon Scott, the man synonymous with the Antarctic whose story is not as well-known as it once was (indeed, I believe I am correct is saying that there is currently not a single children’s book on Scott that is still in print). Taking Scott’s life and adventures as the spine of his book, he interleaves chapters about him with stories of adventure and heroic action from across time and space – from the astronauts of Apollo 13 to the Penlee lifeboat men via the Cockleshell heroes, the charge of the light brigade, the flight of the Nez Perces, the battle of Thermopylae and many others, both famous stories and the more obscure that perhaps deserve to be better known.

“The book was written not to put down women but in the hope that it might inspire his own son and others like him…”

There I no denying that Oliver’s selection of stories is impressive and thoroughly researched; there is even an ample further reading section at the end so readers can take any interest raised by the book further if they wish to. The selection is designed to reinforce his thesis that being a true man requires fortitude, courage and a sense of duty, and the individuals written about are certainly deserving of our respect. While I knew many of the stories before reading the book, others were new to me and I mostly enjoyed reading them. While many seemed to be too much about death and tragedy (notably the charge of the light brigade), others were truly admirable – I doubt many people could read about the origins of the Birkenhead Drill (“first, women and children”) without feeling incredibly moved. With just three working lifeboats for a crew of hundreds of soldiers and sailors, along with the families of most officers on board, the stricken HMS Birkenhead started to sink off the cost of southern Africa in 1852. Faced with three miles of shark-infested waters between the ship and the coast, the captain abandoned the usual “every man for himself” approach and ordered the youngest officers to gather the women and children in the lifeboats and save themselves, while the rest of the men calmly paraded on deck, facing certain death as the ship sank and their only hope of survival rowed away from them. Not a single man broke rank or attempted to climb into one of the lifeboats lest their extra weight sink it. Their actions saved every woman and child on the Birkenhead and changed the way evacuations at sea were carried out forever.

The tone of the writing is one of a Boys’ Own adventure story and for the most part was well-paced and good enough to lose yourself in. There were a few places where it fell down – the story of Apollo 13 ended in a couple of paragraphs that amounted to “the ground crew found stuff to sort out the command module’s problems and they survived”, which was seriously anti-climactic after several pages of excellent build-up, for instance. Perhaps it was just that Oliver felt a bit out of his depth writing about some things more than others, or perhaps he just rushed a few bits to meet a deadline. Some stories also got a bit too over-romanticised and wistful for my liking, but there is still an admirable lack of jingoism and Empire nostalgia and I do concede that I am probably not the core target audience for this book anyway. The paperback copy I read had a small section of black and white illustrations to accompany the test, but if visual accompaniment is important to you I would advise going for the more lavishly illustrated hardback edition of the book.

Inevitably Amazing Tales has received criticism for leaving out the less glorious actions of men (which seems to miss out the point of the book as a collection of inspirational tales) and for daring to be a work that applauds men and men alone. When challenged about this last point in an interview shortly after the book was first released, Oliver denied that the book has a message saying equality is a bad thing – he admits that it is his partner who does all the hard work while he “just messes about in waterproof trousers” and is too cosseted to make the grade as a manly man. The book was written not to put down women but in the hope that it might inspire his own son and others like him – and maybe even a few girls too.


Amazing Tales For Making Men Out of Boys by Neil Oliver
Published by Penguin Books, 2008

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Amazing Tales For Making Men Out of Boys
by Neil Oliver

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Written by collingwood21

Collingwood21 is a 32 year old university administrator and ex-pat northerner living down south. Married. Over-educated. Loves books, history, archaeology and writing.

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