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29 July 2008

Jumping off the scaffold

Herring on the dangers of having an annoying child and whether it would be worth it for tax purposes

By Richard Herring

On my way up to the Edinburgh Fringe (The Headmaster’s Son – Underbelly, 7.30pm) I stopped off for a gig in Newcastle and stayed with my friend Jeremy.

He has two children, an inquisitive seven year old boy and his shy younger sister, who wasn’t quite sure about me. At breakfast she made herself a small hide out of cereal boxes which blocked me out or her in depending on which way you look at it. She would occasionally suspiciously peep over the top, but mainly remained hidden, though the silliness of such a construct made us both giggle, so we still shared something. Laughter is a wonderful thing and though it can’t bring down barriers, it can go over them and still be a mutual experience.

Later I asked her brother what his favourite subject at school was and he said history. I told him that I studied history at Oxford University and thus knew every single historical fact that there had ever been and invited him to ask me any question to prove this.

He wanted to know what year Guy Fawkes had been born in – the slightly tangential kind of fact that only a child could be interested in. I knew the Gunpowder plot was in 1605 and guessed that he had been around about 30 at the time, so guessed at 1574. I wondered if he had known all along, but he didn’t. He just wanted to know and accepted my approximation as fact, nodding with interest.

I decided I should give him the real answer, just in case he believed me his whole life and then ended up on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire” and that was a question and he then blamed me for getting it wrong. And his trustful acceptance of whatever I said as fact was very endearing. Thanks to wikipedia we have instant access to all information in the world (which like a 7 year old I trust implicitly as FACT).

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It revealed that Guy Fawkes was born in 1570, so I had been close. I know some facts about Fawkes, not from University, where I did very little work, but from the Radio 2 sketch show “That Was Then This Is Now” in which I’d written a skit about how when discovered in the cellars of the Houses of Parliament and challenged, Fawkes unimaginatively claimed his name was John Johnson. He could only think of one name. Even my seven year old historian friend was able to come up with a better pseudonym. I challenged him and he told me his name was “Mike Thompson”. Guy Fawkes might have gotten away with it if he had thought of that.

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I discovered something I didn’t know, that Fawkes had cheated the hangman by jumping off the scaffold before he could be hanged and breaking his neck. This might seem like a rather Pyrrhic victory, give his neck was probably about to be broken through hanging, but Fawkes had not only taken his fate into his own gunpowder encrusted hands, he had also managed to avoid the rather gruesome fate of being drawn and quartered. I asked Jeremy’s permission to explain what this meant. It’s not very nice. But aside from thinking it was nasty and thinking that it was good that we didn’t do that any more, my young fellow in historical interest took it all quite matter of factly.

We had a discussion about the morality of executing someone for doing something wrong – and Guy Fawkes hadn’t even killed anyone, even if he had wanted to – and I was able to compare it to things that were going on today. How cool to have a discussion like this with a 7 year old. And how great that his fascination and inquisitiveness had led to me finding out new things.

Later my new friend told me that he’d like to be a farmer when he grew up, but listed the animals that he wouldn’t kill. He was very fond of the pinemartin, but also of deer, which he said he would only kill if they were proving to be an annoyance on his farm. I talked about another gruesome practice from the olden days (and presumably still going on) about cutting off stags’ heads and putting them up on the wall as decoration.

We agreed that this was an odd thing to do and the boy laughed about the idea he had had of coming in to the room to find that someone had stuck his own head on the wall. I don’t think that he quite realised that if that happened he wouldn’t be able to come into the room to see his own head. But it was a funny notion and we ran with it for a while, with me arguing that his mum and dad might get into trouble if they were to utilise his head in this way and that I would be rather shocked to see it on my next visit.

I was enjoying the way that we could have such a gruesome conversation in such a light tone. The more I think about it, the more my job is to have the mindset of a seven year old boy, exploring the world through ideas that occur to him, some based in fact and some in fancy. I wondered to myself if I should have some kids of my own so that they can help me come up with material like this. And then I wondered if I could therefore claim the cost of having kids against tax.

He asked me if I had any children and I said I hadn’t, but was thinking of having some, so I was talking to as many kids as possible so I could find out what they were like to see if I wanted one. I had said that I had worried that children were annoying, but that he didn’t seem annoying at all and was a good advert for the whole children idea. But he warned me that a lot of children were annoying, which was nice of him. “What if I got an annoying one?” I asked. And I think we agreed that the risk was too great.