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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This week, a top tip to save on washing powder (just don’t stand too near the window)

I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

Well, in the end I didn’t have to go to Ikea (see last week’s column). I got out of it on the grounds that I was obviously on the verge of a tantrum, always distressing to witness in a man in his early-to-mid-fifties, and because I am going to Switzerland.

“Why Switzerland?” I hear you ask. For the usual reason: because someone is paying for me. I don’t think I’m going to be earning any money there, but at least I’ll be getting a flight to Zurich and a scenic train ride to Bellinzona, which I learn is virtually in Italy, and has three castles that, according to one website, are considered to be “amongst the finest examples of medieval fortification in Switzerland”.

I’m not sure what I’m meant to be doing there. It’s all about a literary festival generally devoted to literature in translation, and specifically this year to London-based writers. The organiser, who rejoices in the first name of Nausikaa, says that all I have to do is “attend a short meeting . . . and be part of the festival”. Does this mean I can go off on a stroll around an Alp and when someone asks me what I’m doing, I can say “Oh, I’m part of the festival”? Or do I have to stay within the fortifications, wearing a lanyard or something?

It’s all rather worrying, if I think about it too hard, but then I can plausibly claim to be from London and, moreover, it’ll give me a couple of days in which to shake off my creditors, who are making the city a bit hot for me at the moment.

And gosh, as I write, the city is hot. When I worked at British Telecom in the late Eighties, there was a rudimentary interoffice communication system on which people could relay one-line messages from their own computer terminal to another’s, or everyone else’s at once. (This was cutting-edge tech at the time.) The snag with this – or the opportunity, if you will – was that if you were not at your desk and someone mischievous, such as Gideon from Accounts (he didn’t work in Accounts; I’m protecting his true identity), walked past he would pause briefly to type in the message “I’m naked” on your machine and fire it off to everyone in the building.

For some reason, the news that either Geoff, the senior team leader, or Helen, the unloved HR manager, was working in the nude – even if we knew, deep down, that they weren’t, and that this was another one of Gideon’s jeux d’esprit – never failed to break the monotony.

It always amused us, though we were once treated to a terrifying mise en abîme moment when a message, again pertaining to personal nudity, came from Gideon’s very own terminal, and, for one awful moment, for it was a very warm day, about 200 white-collar employees of BT’s Ebury Bridge Road direct marketing division suddenly entertained the appalling possibility, and the vision it summoned, that Gideon had indeed removed every stitch of his clothing, and fired off his status quo update while genuinely in the nip. He was, after all, entirely capable of it. (We still meet up from time to time, we BT stalwarts, and Gideon is largely unchanged, except that he’s now a history lecturer.)

I digress in this fashion in order to build up to the declaration – whose veracity you can judge for yourselves – that as I write this, at 3.04pm on a sticky Thursday afternoon, I, too, am in the state in which Adam, before his shame, strolled in the Garden of Eden.

There are practical reasons for this. For one thing, it is punishingly hot, and I am beginning, even after a morning shower, to smell like a tin of oxtail soup (to borrow an unforgettable phrase first coined by Julie Burchill). I am also anxious not to transfer any of this odour to any of my clothes, for I will be needing them in Switzerland, and I am running low on washing powder, as well as money to buy more washing powder.

For another thing, I am fairly sure that I am alone in the Hovel. I am not certain. To be certain, I would have to call out my housemate’s name, and that would only be the beginning of our problems. “Yes, I’m here,” she would reply from her room. “Why?” “Um . . .” You see?

So here I lie on my bed, laptop in lap, every window as wide open as can be, and looking for all the world like a hog roast with glasses.

If I step too near the window I could get arrested. At least they don’t mind that kind of thing in Switzerland: they strip off at the drop of a hat. Oh no, wait, that’s Germany.

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times