Growing up in semi-rural Essex in the Seventies and early Eighties I was obsessed with two things: Star Wars and war wars. Of the two the latter won out by a head.
It wasn’t particularly unusual back then. Films glamourising the events of WW2 were a staple of our very limited afternoon TV choices and comics like Victor and Warlord were the preferred reading material of many a boy.
In the school playground we would play ‘Germans’ and it was always the least popular kids who ended up on the other side.
I was given my first cap gun at about the age of five and my arsenal grew from there. Plastic weapons filled my bedroom. In addition to my array of guns I had hundreds of toy soldiers. Miniature plastic British Commandos, Desert Rats, Germans with weird shaped hand grenades and – incongruously – Napoleonic troops with muskets. I would spend hours setting them up – arraying the opposing forces against each other.
And having done so, like some pubescent God, I would then choose who died.
Sometimes I would dress up. I had bits and pieces of my father’s and grandfather’s old uniforms. An Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders cap badge from Grandad and my own Dad’s Sam Browne and belt combination. I’d don them – and creep forth into the farmer’s fields – and stalk along the river bed of the brook that ran between the back of our garden and the warehouses on the edge of Harlow New Town.
To fuel my imagination, I would try to extract tales of heroism from my family members who had been there.
Grandad had been in France in the Great War and there was a fabulous story my Mum would tell, about how he had fallen out with his own father in 1914 and run off to join the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. But when encouraged to tell me about events himself, he would fail to deliver. As he listed the names of the friends that he had lost he would sometimes start to cry. As I set out in the opening chapter of my book – Fake History – it was clear in retrospect that he was suffering the effects of PTSD – but all I saw was a crying old man.
My dad, who was in his fifties when I was born, should have been able to deliver the goods instead. He had been on active service during the far more glamorous Second World War, meaning that he potentially had wealth of stories to tell me. I longed for him to describe all thrilling and exciting ways in which he had killed the enemy.
But Dad wouldn’t play.
He was happy to talk about climbing the Great Pyramid at Giza and the invasion of Italy – but the rest of his reminiscences were rather at odds with what I was watching on television and playing out on my bedroom floor.
He recalled swinging drunkenly on a rope – and another time when he was eating a sandwich only to realise that someone was taking pot shots at him. He had a hilarious anecdote about the time his friend Richard’s Bailey bridge collapsed and another one about helping three Italian women escape across into British lines. But like my grandfather, the stories were tinged with sadness too. The great romp of war was punctuated with his parent’s divorce and the separation of his family. It had been painful for him. He had lost an eye to illness and admitted that he had often been afraid.
His best friend from school – Sandford – had died during the North Africa Campaign and the memory of him would make my Dad cry. The totality was nothing like my Victor Comics at all.
He also had some frankly weird stories. In particular the one in which Winston Churchill visited the 8th Army in 1943 – only to be greeted with uninterest verging on contempt.
My father was a Tory his entire life but curiously – he never really lauded his party’s most famous leader and again a story I thought potentially fascinating – the time ‘my dad was in North Africa with Churchill’ was a bit of a damp squib.
At this distance of time, I cannot accurately remember Dad’s version – but it went along the lines of “we thought he was trying to cash in on our efforts.” Dad was quite adamant about it – the mood in the ranks was that they had all been obliged to line up and cheer to make him look good.
There’s a Pathe newsreel of the visit – which I have spent a happy hour scanning for sight of Dad and evidence of his tale – but to no avail. What’s striking however is that everyone does look a bit subdued – but then that could simply be the heat or me reading my own remembered version of my Dad’s into it.
As I grew up, I put away my childish things. As an annoyingly left-leaning, politically minded, twenty-something drama student, I never mentioned my childhood obsession with war to my friends. His war was – to me – was now ancient history and no longer something that particularly interested me.
I remained proud of him. Very proud indeed. And I was lucky to have him because we were very close considering – or perhaps because of the age gap. He was everything you’d want your dad to be.
But to my shame when he and his comrades marched through London for the last time in 1995 – I didn’t go along to watch or cheer or even meet him and my mother afterwards as they wanted. I had a date on the other side of town and that seemed far more important at the time.
“Oh, come away, why do you stand there
Listening open-mouthed to the talk of old men?
Haven’t you heard enough of Troy and Achilles?
Why should they bore us for ever,
With an old quarrel and the names of dead men
We never knew, and dull forgotten battles?”
Dad died in 1998 and subsequently his friends would tell me other stories. Stories that would have made me proud as an eight-year-old boy – but ones that he was far too modest to share.
In the years since – his old army friends and most of that generation have faded away. Their lived experiences are now the unreliable second-hand reminiscences of their children – and not entirely trustworthy. We all bend the narratives of our families and forge our own personal mythos in the process.
Perhaps I have done that here.
Perhaps I have cherry-picked the parts that serve my own agenda – the bits where Winston is not greeted as a hero in Africa for example. My father died more than twenty years ago after all – so is my own memory entirely trustworthy or am I too indulging in fake history in the way I tell it.
There’s evidence to support my father’s rather dim view of the wartime PM’s morale boosting visit to Tripoli.
There’s footage demonstrating that Churchill was booed on several occasions during the war. It happened while he was inspecting bomb damage in 1943 and again while campaigning prior to the 1945 General Election.
In that remarkable archive material – a clearly shaken Churchill is roundly jeered by people in the crowd – including several in uniform who chant:
“We want Labour!”
Presumably these are those ‘woke warriors’ about whom one hears so much.
We don’t think of Churchill being booed do we. Any more than we think of Churchill losing two general elections as leader of the Conservative Party. Or Churchill opposing the idea of the Normandy landings. Or Churchill being viewed by his contemporaries as a self-promoting braggart.
That’s in no small part down to the massaging of his legacy – by himself and latterly – others.
He has been adopted as our national hero and we are expected to respect him and not question it – or his place in history as our greatest Prime Minister. To suggest that he was anything other than the legend is to go against our national group.
Politicians and many a popular historian would like us buy into the simplistic narratives of ‘our’ past because they prefer it that way. Britain – alone – as noble bulldog saving the world from the menace of Naziism. It makes us all feel good about our nation. We can all slap ourselves on the back for the good job we did even though hardly anyone alive today was actually there.
Goodies versus baddies. The stuff I played in the fields of Essex as an 8 year old boy.
I think it’s a bit more complex and interesting and human than that – which is why I wrote my book.
I suppose in truth I’ve written this – because with it coming out this week – I suddenly find myself missing Dad.
Fake History – available here is out June 10th