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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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.