Tutelary Spirits

I have some Nick Hornbyish qualities. I make constant lists of books, movies, music, quotes, party guest lists, and chores. Unlike his, my lists are the storage devices of a magpie, rather than an effort to rank the world into comforting order.

Herewith, as Tim Bray says, a working list of my heroes. I add to it all the time. Some are famous, some only to me. You won’t find many giants here, the Mandelas and the Da Vincis. Rather, these are the people on whose qualities or careers I’d like to pattern my own life, and for the most part they’re not out of reach.

I’ve listed some for their curiosity, warmth, or morality, not necessarily their artistic output. With others, it’s their ability to collaborate, catalyze, and cross-pollinate. And still others, their staying power.

Henry David Thoreau
Terry Gross
Nora Dillon
Ira Glass
William Maxwell
Bill Murray
Elizabeth David
Tavis Smiley

David Bowie
Richard Avedon
Caitriona Palmer
Elvis Costello
Declan Kiberd
Emmylou Harris
Daniel Lanois
Alan Ross
Billy Wilder
Nigella Lawson
Charles Darwin
Scott Simon
Alistair Cooke
George F. Kennan
Sean Ahern
Alan Ball
Tony Bourdain
Jason Devitt
Alexander Payne
Christopher Alexander
Roddy Doyle
Audrey Hepburn
John Gardner
Harold Lloyd
Pierre Omidyar
Miuccia Prada
William Shawn
Jonathan Raban
Edward Abbey
Dervla Murphy
Alice Stewart
Charles and Ray Eames
Frances McDormand
Alice Munro
Sophia Coppola
George Dyson
David Quammen
Jake Greene
Stewart Brand
Nuala O’Faoilean
Helmut Lang
John Peel
Gerrit Van Gelderen
Robert Putnam
Noel Browne
Steve Earle
Lola Montez
Catherine Devlin
James Joyce
Studs Terkel
Brendan Gill
Christopher Hitchens
Kirsty McColl
Todd Oldham
David Attenborough
Mark Morris
Barbara Kingsolver
Paul Durcan
Delia Smith
Katherine Hepburn
Samantha Power
Malcolm Gladwell
Van Morrison
Sunny Balzano
Eamonn De Buitléar
Tracy Kidder
Candy Martin
James Naughtie
Lee Thorn
Graham Greene
Chris Hackett
Norman Lewis
Mike Leigh
Chris Corrigan
Alice Waters
Jack Kornfeld
Julia Child
Scott Simon
Robert Altman
Tom DeMarco
Nora Barnacle
Larry Burrows
General Romeo Dallaire
JK Rowling
Fr. Hugh Fagan
Jessica Mitford
Sister Stanislaus Kennedy
William Trevor
Jane Jacobs
Bob Geldof
Novice Phon
Olu Dara
Rick Vosper
Rafael Lemkin
Dave Lutz
Paul Rusesabagina
George Orwell
Catherine Keeener
Charles Lamb
Sister Wendy
Anthony Burgess
Anne Fadiman
Roger Straus

27 thoughts on “Tutelary Spirits”

  1. Wow. Excellent list. The name that stands out for me is Declan Kiberd. I never talked to him personally, but he was the most memorable lecturer for the most memorable of my English courses at University College Dublin while I was there for my study abroad program ten years ago.

    My home school back in the States was a small liberal arts school, where the party line was that small classrooms meant better teaching. Despite the fact that my UCD class included several hundred students, and I had little personal contact with the man, I definitely felt that Declan Kiberd was a much more influential “tutelary spirit” than some of my home professors I talked with daily.


  2. Ezra, we may have sat in the same classes. I graduated 1994, and Declan was my seminar tutor. He’s just come out with what looks to be a wonderful book on why Irish writers/artists haven’t yet done justice to Ireland’s changing society. I read a chunk of it in last month’s Magill magazine; it’s pure Declan.


  3. Irish writers are too busy quizzically tilting their heads and representing their own country as “other” for middle-brow London. Usually in shitty “gossamer” prose. Well, the Dubliners among them anyway. Given the interconnectedness of things, they should be writing from the inside looking out rather than from the outside looking in – esp as in the latter case, they do so from a perspective transparently not their own. Where’s the post-tiger Heather Blazing?


  4. nice list… humbling how few names I recognize.

    just curious, how come Larry Page is on their but Sergey Brin isnt?

    In a desperate attempt to procastinate on real work, I was looking at your list and wondering how to do a degress of separation small-world kevin-bacon kind of thing. I got the easiest one, Bill Murray and Sophia Coppolla in “Lost in Translation”, and got as far as finding a 5 degree link to Katherine Hepburn before I realized that Chaucer would be a tough one.


  5. Doesn’t the sheer size of your list diminish the influence of each person? How can all these people, who come from so many disparate walks of life, be your heroes?


  6. Hey Matt,

    Oops, I didn’t mean Larry Page, the Google guy, at all. He’s emphatically not on my list; there’s room for only one dorky software billionaire on there and it ain’t him. No, I meant Larry Burrows, the Vietnam war photographer.

    And don’t feel bad about not having heard of them! Some of them are friends of mine.


  7. Moriarty,

    Your comment was thoughtful, polite, and reasonable, and so I’m trying to understand why it bugged me so much! I guess I don’t like the notion that there are limits on the number or kinds of people who can inspire us. If so, what’s a fair allowance? Three? Three hundred? When I think of personal heroes, they’re not jostling for influence like presidential advisors. They’re just (a subset of) people who have influenced me and whom I respect.


  8. Hi Dervala,

    When you put it like that, I see what you mean. Just when I saw the first six or seven, I thought that was it, and then it went on and on and on…
    But you’re right, there shouldn’t be a limit on people you admire and respect. Can they all carry the same influence though? Aren’t there two or three that have made much more of an impact than the others?


  9. Yes, and I was being a brat.

    I’m hard-pressed to pick the ones who’ve had most impact because it varies from one chunk of my life to the next (and I bounce around a lot). My mentor for the last while–the ex-boyfriend, Ranger Tim–isn’t even on here.

    Some of them on the list I don’t even know well enough to count them as an influence, exactly–like Terry Gross, whose Fresh Air radio show I’ve heard five or six times at most. But when I heard her I thought, oh yes, that’s the kind of listener I’d like to be. So it’s more a recognition thing than a hero thing. I have that with Thoreau, too. I’d prefer to be like someone who wasn’t as much of a nutjob as Henry David, but he’s the one I’m stuck with recognizing.

    And others, like Ed Abbey, I like for his principles and his orneriness, but I’d never want to be like him ‘cos he was a miserable git.

    Who are your heroes?


  10. That would be Father Hubert Fagan the Holy Ghost priest who worked with the homeless in Dublin? If it’s the same guy, I nearly went to Gambia to work with him twenty-five years ago. What a wonderful person, please send me news if you have seen him recently.


  11. Genevieve,

    I’m pretty sure it’s the same Fr. Hugh, though I know him as Hugh, not Hubert. He’s retired in Dublin now after fifty years in Africa. I met him when he married my best friend and her American husband four years ago. He’s amazing; a brilliant storyteller, genius human being. Champion smoker. You can probably contact him by writing to St. Mary’s College in Rathmines.



  12. Many thanks! I thought he was such a balanced guy, Hugh ( and yes we called him Hugh, he was friends with my dad and divulged the Hubert to us eventually). He had a brother Jude who left the priesthood as a young man, and Hugh was devastated by the way his brother was treated by his parents. He met up with my ma and pa some years back on one of their trips to Ireland. And you are right, he is a gifted storyteller indeed.
    I still say ” slowly slowly catch the monkey” to myself sometimes – one of his Gambian sayings ( probably universal actually).
    Thanks very much for answering!


  13. Dervala, you have three names on your list that have had huge influence on my life, though one I would never thought to name myself without your prompting.

    The obvious ones: John Peel, whom I listened to nightly in my teens, with untold influence on my listening habits since – I was limp with grief for weeks after his death; Van Morrison, heard first on Peel’s show, twenty-odd albums and twenty-odd live shows since have mixed engrossing and infuriating, but hardly ever dull; and the surprise, Tracy Kidder, whose Soul of a New Machine convinced this would-be Biochemist that playing with computers could be a proper way to earn a living.


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