Perhaps we only really understand our parents once we're grown up, standing in their old, discarded shoes. Photo: Getty
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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.

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.

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

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Where Labour has no chance, hold your nose and vote Lib Dem

May's gamble, MacKenzie's obsession and Wisden obituaries - Peter Wilby's First Thoughts.

In 2007 Gordon Brown allowed rumours to circulate that he would call an early general election for the spring of 2008. When he failed to do so, he was considered a coward and a ditherer and never recovered. Theresa May has tried a different strategy. After firmly denying that she would call an early election and killing off speculation about one, she suddenly announced an election after all. Will this work better for her than the opposite worked for Brown?

The Prime Minister risks being seen as a liar and an opportunist. Her demand for “unity” at Westminster is alarming, because it suggests that there is no role for opposition parties on the most important issue of the day. If Labour and the Lib Dems are smart enough to co-operate sufficiently to rally the country against what looks like an attempt to instal an authoritarian, right-wing Tory regime, May, even if she wins the election, could find herself weakened, not strengthened. I never thought I would write this but, in constituencies where Labour has no chance, its supporters should hold their noses and vote Lib Dem.

Taken for granted

I wonder if May, before she took her decision, looked at the precedents of prime ministers who called unnecessary elections when they already had comfortable parliamentary majorities. In 1974, after three and a half years in office, Edward Heath, with a Tory majority of 30, called a “Who runs Britain?” election during a prolonged dispute with the miners. He lost. In 1923, Stanley Baldwin, a new Tory leader sitting on a majority of 75 obtained by his predecessor just a year earlier, called an election because he wished to introduce tariffs, an issue strikingly similar to the one raised by Brexit. He also lost. The lesson, I think (and hope), is that prime ministers take the electorate for granted at their peril.

China’s long game

Commentators compare the crisis ­involving North Korea and the US with the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. It doesn’t feel that way to me. For several days that year, nuclear war seemed, to my 17-year-old mind, all but inevitable. I went to the cinema one afternoon and felt surprise when I emerged three hours later to find the world – or, at least, the city of Leicester – going about its business as normal. Two nuclear powers were in direct confrontation. The US threatened to invade communist Cuba to remove Soviet missiles and blockaded the island to prevent deliveries of more weapons. Soviet ships sailed towards the US navy. It wasn’t easy to imagine a compromise, or who would broker one. Nobody doubted that the two sides’ weapons would work. The Soviet Union had carried out nearly 200 nuclear tests. North Korea has claimed just five.

For all the talk of intercontinental missiles, North Korea at present isn’t a credible threat to anybody except possibly its neighbours, and certainly not to the US or Britain. It is in no sense a geopolitical or economic rival to the US. Donald Trump, who, like everybody else, finds the Middle East infernally complicated, is looking for an easy, short-term victory. The Chinese will probably arrange one for him. With 3,500 years of civilisation behind them, they are accustomed to playing the long game.

Mussel pains

Whenever I read Kelvin MacKenzie’s columns in the Sun, I find him complaining about the size of mussels served by the Loch Fyne chain, a subject on which he happens to be right, though one wonders why he doesn’t just order something else. Otherwise, he writes badly and unfunnily, often aiming abuse at vulnerable people such as benefit claimants. It’s a new departure, however, to insult someone because they were on the receiving end of what MacKenzie calls “a nasty right-hander”, apparently unprovoked, in a Liverpool nightclub. He called the victim, the Everton and England footballer Ross Barkley, who has a Nigerian grandfather, “one of our dimmest footballers” and likened him to “a gorilla at the zoo”.
The paper has suspended MacKenzie, a former Sun editor, and Merseyside Police is investigating him for racism, though he claims he didn’t know of Barkley’s ancestry.

Several commentators express amazement that Sun editors allowed such tripe to be published. It was not, I think, a mistake. Britain has no equivalent of America’s successful alt-right Breitbart website, disruptively flinging insults at all and sundry and testing the boundaries of what it calls “political correctness”, because our alt right is already established in the Sun, Express and Mail. To defend their position, those papers will continue to be as nasty as it takes.

Over and out

Easter is the time to read the cricket annual Wisden and, as usual, I turn first to the obituaries. Unlike newspaper obituaries, they record failures as well as successes – those who managed just a few undistinguished performances in first-class cricket and, most poignantly, some who promised much but died early. We learn of a 22-year-old Indian who, during demonstrations against the alleged molestation of a schoolgirl, was shot dead by police and whose grieving mother (invoking the name of one of India’s greatest batsmen) cried, “Bring my Gavaskar back!” In England, two young men drowned, having played one first-class match each, and a 22-year-old Sussex fast bowler, described as “roguish” and “enormously popular”, fell off a roof while celebrating New Year with friends in Scotland. In South Africa, a young batsman was among five municipal employees killed when their truck crashed; the local mayor fled the funeral as his workmates “chanted menacingly” about unpaid wages.

Among the better-known deaths is that of Martin Crowe, probably New Zealand’s best batsman. In a Test match, he once got out on 299 and reckoned the near-miss contributed to the cancer that killed him at 53. “It tore at me like a vulture pecking dead flesh,” he said. Cricket can do that kind of thing to you. 

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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