Bad guys and good guys
Updated: Oct 8
My son adopted the expression that I called his thinking look – all big eyes and as much a frown as a four-year old could muster on a crease-free forehead. I braced myself. He thrust a little polystyrene aeroplane between me and my computer screen.
‘Is this a baddie, Daddy?’
I recognised it from my childhood model collection; the unmistakeable black on white crosses: a Messerschmitt 109.
‘Is it a baddie?’
‘Well, not really, son,’ I pronounced, adopting that let-me-explain tone parents use when they are considering an explanation along the lines of the world not being as simple as black and white.
As far as Alfie was concerned, the world was black and white and any attempt on my part to explain the geopolitics of more than 50 years ago would be futile. He was still grappling with the concept of yesterday and tomorrow so the rise of Nazism was a long way along the learning curve.
The flimsy model, a wing thrust through slits in a flat fuselage, had come from the general dealers in the village; an Aladdin’s cave of tools and other hardware, pet food, toys, plugs, fuses, tights and other manner of last-minute necessities for village living.
My reservations about him playing with make-believe weapons – toy guns were banned from his playthings – had been assuaged by the idea of him being enthralled by such a cheap novelty. A toy for 32p appealed to my puritanical streak which was at odds with the expensive plastic gadgetry strewn on the floor of his play area.
This was the second time the goodie and baddie scenario had raised its head and I realised, with the lurch of a parent who had navigated the shark-infested swamp of potty training only to step on a crocodile marked ‘cognitive processes’, that what I said could influence his attitudes for a long time. I mused…
‘Yes, he’s a baddie.’
‘He used to shoot at Grandad.’ The model’s new mantle gave it renewed interest.
Turning to my pro-European, modern parent alter ego, I muttered: ‘Well, they started it didn’t they?’ Basil Fawlty would have been proud.
This scenario was typical of that seat-of-the-pants style of parenting in which the time and effort devoted to explaining an issue was in inverted proportion to its importance. Take religion. Apart from the too-soon marriage ceremony, his mother and I never went to church, we never talked about God and, being ‘modern parents’, tended to subscribe to tangible theories such as glitches in medieval bible translations giving rise to miracles. When we should have been hammering out a parental stance on seven-day creations, heaven, hell and walking on water we were discussing the perils of fizzy drinks with aspartame and the MMR vaccination.
So, Alfie got his introduction to Christianity at nursery during the marathon run-up to Christmas and came home talking about baby Jesus saving the world, shepherds and stables. Wolves featured prominently.
‘Why did the baddie shoot at Grandad?’
I bit back a flippant answer. Grandad, my father-in-law, ranked highly in the League of People Who Made Me Irritable.
‘Erm, because Grandad was trying to drop bombs on them.’
‘Well, some people, called Nazis, were being naughty and we, err... Grandad, wanted them to stop being naughty.’
He fixed me with that unblinking gaze of brown eyes and long lashes that filled me with the urge to crush him to me.
‘How were they naughty?’
An image came to my mind. In it my step-father, Alfie’s other Grandad – the working-class one – and his mother were being dug out of a half-collapsed Andersen shelter. At the bottom of the crater, where their terraced house used to be, lay a dead cat and a Christmas tree. The old couple who lived next door were dead. His mother never had a Christmas tree in her house again.
‘Well, they dropped a bomb on Grandad Ron’s house.’ The brown eyes widened.
I blamed my brother for the goodie versus baddie aeroplane fixation. We had left Alfie at my brother’s house in North London one Saturday afternoon to watch one of my wife’s colleagues get married to a Channel Four producer.
We returned to find that Alfie had been shown selected excerpts of the Battle of Britain with additional commentary, courtesy of an excited 42-year-old uncle. This revelation did not take on the significance it should have had on our Champagne-fuelled consciences until the following day when machine-gun noises were still emanating from Alfie’s car seat during the drive back to Kent.
‘Is there much violence in the film?’ My wife’s gaze flicked back to the windscreen as we edged towards the Blackwall Tunnel under London’s grey morning-after skies.
The wipers flicked across my vision. ‘Bit of blood here and there. Not a lot. It’s a 1960s’ film.’ She pulled a face so I added: ‘I’m sure he would have had the sensitivity to fast-forward past anything too gory. Anyway, Alfie is too young to realise that exploding planes have people in them.’
The film had been one of the cinematic milestones of our youth. A time when British boys played war games in the street and recreated vignettes of the Second World War in their bedrooms with Airfix kits. There had always been the stirring salute of the Dambusters and the other black and whites on wet Sunday afternoons but the Battle of Britain brought a new vibrancy to the war with glorious Technicolor. We went to see it at ‘the pictures’ with our cousins and collected cards showing stills from the film.
As we emerged from the tunnel, I folded my arms and smiled out of the window at the thought of Susannah York’s knickers. It was the film’s only bedroom scene, in which Susannah’s frills fluttered from under the tail of her WAAF blouse. Was there a card featuring that scene? My wife muttered as a petrol tanker threw spray across her vision.
Despite my upbringing I did not want Alfie to be one of those kids who played around in combat clothing. I wanted him to be a 21st-century boy. I wanted to see him pull stunts on a skateboard and thrash a mountain bike through the woods. I wanted him to be surfing, snowboarding and speaking French before he was old enough to drive.
I wanted him to do those things and I wanted to be able to do those things so I could teach him. Well, maybe not the French. I wanted to be there for him. I had to lose the black dog moods. I had to shed the baggage. I wanted to be happy. I wanted all of us to be happy.
I enticed Alfie downstairs, making sure he held the bannister. He clutched the Messerschmitt in his free hand. I’d heard the news and wanted to see more on the TV. I tried to hurry him with my pace by stepping slightly ahead. He never liked it when I left him behind on the stairs and I hated the thought of him trying to hurry after me and slipping on the wooden treads.
We got to the sitting room where I picked up the remote off the coffee table where it usually lay with the cordless telephone. Alfie saw what I was doing.
‘Can I watch some Alfie telly?’
‘In a minute, son. Just let Daddy catch the news.’
He did not argue. The rules about the time for Daddy telly and the time for Alfie telly had been successfully established.
There was a burning skyscraper, then the replay of a jet smashing into it and the commentary of a Sky anchor-woman trying to hold down the panic of knowing this was the highlight of her broadcasting career.
‘Jesus Christ!’ I sat down on the coffee table.
‘Is it a fire? Is it a fire, Daddy?’
‘A plane just crashed into the building and it started a fire.’
I turned off the set and placed the remote down. Alfie looked at me, giving nothing away.
Will he remember this moment? I have a vague memory of sitting at home in my pyjamas on a brown settee watching the fuzzy images of the Moon landings on a black and white television set.
After I’m dead will he turn to his wife during one of those 40-something reminiscences over dinner and tell her he remembers watching the blue sky and the burning buildings at home with his Dad that day?
‘I think some naughty men crashed the plane into the building.’
‘Why? Are they baddies?’
We had moved here from London a month ago and the silence of the countryside surrounding our home was still so noticeable.
‘Yes, Alf. They’re baddies.’