As Mum and Dad’s tales of the Blitz taught me, being a parent is all about playing it down

The role of parent, which seems so demanding while you’re playing it, requires mostly that you underact.

Perhaps we only really understand our parents once we're grown up, standing in their old, discarded shoes. Photo: Getty
Perhaps we only really understand our parents once we're grown up, standing in their old, discarded shoes. Photo: Getty
Our youngest had his 13th birthday the other day and I got a wonderful text from my dad saying, “All I remember about turning 13 is being allowed to smoke in the bomb shelter.” It made me laugh out loud but then I suddenly stopped and, for the first time, I pictured my dad as a 13-year-old little man, huddled in some underground bunker in Finsbury Park, sucking on a fag, while planes flew overhead trying to kill him. My heart turned over a bit with empathy and guilt, as I imagined anyone trying to do that to my 13-year-old little man, and recognised how blasé I’d always been about the things that had happened to both my dad and my mum.

I’d grown up hearing their war stories without ever finding them very frightening, or shocking, or real. They simply were. The war was long over and, far from growing up in its dark shadow, I lived with a cosy version of it, played out through Dad’s Army, my brother’s Airfix models of Spitfires and the boys in the playground shouting, “You be the Nazis!” as an alternative to: “You be the Indians!”

And my parents were of that generation brought up to make light of things, put on a brave face and keep their pecker up, so they made little effort to convey to us the terror hidden in their anecdotes. Wary of frightening us, they made their adventures sound funny and exciting. Mum told us, “I was a bit of a bolshie teenager and one night I was just too stroppy to go down into the shelter, so I stayed in my bed and, as I lay there, a bomb fell and I watched as my bedroom wall split open in front of my eyes, so I could see the street outside.” While Dad said: “My brother and I had to share a bed and this bomb dropped so close that Tony was blown clean out of bed and across the room. HA HA HA.” It was all about as real to me as an Ealing comedy.

Bizarre, though, isn’t it, how lacking in empathy the young can be? Your parents don’t exist for you in any setting beyond the dinner table or the kitchen. Their childhood is simply made up, their life outside the home an irrelevance. Ben and I are often asked whether our children are impressed by our careers, our various successes both in the past and now, and my reply is to ask the questioner whether or not they have ever actually met a child. Of course they’re not impressed. Or particularly interested. What children want from their parents is pocket money, tea on the table, the Xbox password – and for said parents to be as inconspicuous as possible on those occasions when they appear in public.

Currently we are failing this test and our kids are having to deal with the fact that both of us have written books, which are visible and in the shops and in their faces. One of our daughters returned grim-faced from the local Waterstones with a tale of how we had ruthlessly humiliated her by having a picture in the window (Dad) and then stacks of books by the till (both Mum and Dad). “I had to lean across a pile of you to pay for my book,” she groaned. “It was excruciating.”

Ironically, the book by Ben that caused her so much mortification was his poignant memoir of his parents, Romany and Tom, a book in which he comes to the realisation that we never really know our parents as we are growing up, only getting to understand them once we ourselves are standing in their old, discarded shoes.

Perhaps it can’t be any other way. You hear people talk about “the family drama”; if there is such a thing, then it often feels like the characters in it are sketchily drawn and two-dimensional. And the role of parent, which seems so demanding while you’re playing it, requires mostly that you underact: that you don’t commandeer too much of the spotlight, or step out of character, or ad-lib, or ask what your motivation is.

So if we want tips on how it’s done, maybe we should ignore all parenting manuals and instead look to that great quote about acting: “Know your lines and don’t bump into the furniture.” That’ll do for me.