Book review: The Society Of Timid Souls: Or How To Be Brave, Polly Morland

IN THIS fascinating rumination on the nature of courage and cowardice, there’s a chapter titled “Crime And Punishment” in which, among other things, Polly Morland has frank conversations with two armed robbers, now reformed.
Polly Morland meets the French Spiderman Alain Robert in a chapter titled Gravity. Photographs: Getty ImagesPolly Morland meets the French Spiderman Alain Robert in a chapter titled Gravity. Photographs: Getty Images
Polly Morland meets the French Spiderman Alain Robert in a chapter titled Gravity. Photographs: Getty Images

The Society Of Timid Souls: Or How To Be Brave

Polly Morland

Profile Books, £12.99

One, working for a prison charity, tells her of his moment of shame; the time he bottled it, failing to fire at the cop car on his tail. It wasn’t that he couldn’t bring himself to shoot an officer but that he hadn’t tested the gun: “I thought it was going to flash up at me, you know? … basically I froze. I didn’t act in the way I should have acted.” To get over the unnerving experience, and knowing that it was luck rather than resourcefulness that had got him away from the cops, he went out on another job and that time he did fire – “…­almost to prove something to myself. And I got 12 years, didn’t I?” Failure of nerve, it turns out, is not confined to the timid hordes of ordinary humanity, and nor is the notion of testing one’s mettle.

Morland talks to people from all walks of life as she probes the ancient Greek idea that courage is one of the virtues and that (as Plato argued) there’s no such thing as a brave bad man. She wants to discover, too, if courage and bravery are the same thing, and if they can be learned. Totting up her interviewees near the end of her year’s research (she boldly gave up her job to do it), she counts 95 of them. They have given her some wonderful ­material, revealing the ­conflicting emotions behind human behaviour in a way that’s spontaneous and direct. It is clear how her years as a documentary-­maker fed into this. After a career spent teasing out revelations on issues as difficult as war crimes in the former Yugoslavia or the rise of political terror groups in Latin America, persuading a heavily tattooed former Parkhurst inmate to bare his soul (her other bank robber, out on lifetime licence) looks to have been easy.

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When she attends a Toastmasters meeting for timid public speakers in rural Wales, her report of its proceedings spares nobody’s blushes; the closest she comes to a duff note in the book.

Elsewhere her tone is sensitive, her approach measured, as she tells the story behind Paratrooper Martin Bell’s posthumous George Cross for bravery in Helmand province; or meets other decorated members of the armed forces including a bomb disposal expert and an armoured tank driver. She talks to members of the emergency services to discover why they put their lives on the line and learns the importance of training, and camaraderie, of obeying orders – and sometimes flouting them.

She meets members of the public who have found courage in extraordinary circumstances – the woman who intervened when a Rottweiler attacked a baby in a pushchair; the off-duty firefighter who challenged a would-be suicide bomber on the London Underground; the Mexican woman who performed her own ­Caesarian ­section.

Can a daredevil be said to be brave? Morland meets the “French Spiderman” – Alain Robert, the urban climber known for his rope-free ascents of skyscrapers – in a chapter titled “Gravity”. In another, called “Beast”, she meets a Spanish bullfighter and watches him in the ring. ­Wherever she looks, she finds people trying to make sense of life and death, refining their experience by telling stories about it, and occasionally taking the coward’s route by rewriting history.

The original Society of Timid­ Souls was formed as a therapy group in Manhattan for musicians with stagefright. That was 70 years ago, just after America entered the Second World War. Morland sees parallels with our post -9/11 world – a widespread loss of nerve. If her book can fire readers with fresh courage and a hope for the future of humanity, she’ll have done what she set out to do. Whether she can teach anyone how to be brave is a different matter. «