Discussing matters of life and death with your six-year-old sonby Jeremy Clarke / April 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
I spend every weekend in the company of my six-year-old son. Lately, to give myself some respite from his incessant and tiring questions, we have been watching a lot of Walt Disney videos. The Jungle Book, Snow White, Fantasia, Aladdin, Pinocchio, Bambi-you name it, we’ve seen it. One I particularly enjoyed and which I hadn’t seen before was Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Part animation and part film, it tells the story of three cockney evacuees who are billeted with a novice witch at a remote cottage beside the sea somewhere in England. After a series of adventures on a flying bed, the children and the witch are taken hostage by a party of Nazi commandos who have taken over the cottage in order to set up a secret signalling post in readiness for a full-scale invasion. Mark and I had no idea the Germans had landed until we suddenly saw two of them creep up behind a mild old station-master, drag him into some bushes by the throat, and… well, whatever it was they did to him, it made him gurgle horribly. Although he didn’t comment on it at the time, the blatant viciousness of these Germans must have made a great impression on Mark, because when I tucked him into his bed that evening, he made me check all the doors and windows in case some of them tried to get in and murder him in the middle of the night.
I explained to him that he had nothing to worry about because the war happened a long time ago and since then the Germans have all said sorry and gone to live in their own country, which is called Germany. “How far away is that?” he asked. I went and got the atlas to show him. “That’s not very far,” he said dubiously. To reassure him, I told him that although Germans certainly used to be “bad,” they have turned over a new leaf and are now generally regarded as “good” and unlikely to invade anybody in the foreseeable future. Sensibly, he has become inured to his father’s inane simplifications and prefers to trust in his own instincts, especially with matters of life and death; he still refuses to compose himself for sleep until assurances have been given that all relevant doors and windows have been secured against Nazi intruders. But although Mark is terrified at the thought of them, they have set him off on a new line of enquiry that has made “war” my specialist subject for the last few weeks.
As Mark tries to make sense of his universe, I feel that it is my responsibility to offer him as much assistance as possible; I make a conscientious effort to answer his questions as thoroughly and intelligently as I can. But his relentless, brain numbing cross-examination has exposed my ignorance in a number of areas. For example, I don’t know what happens when we die, or where heaven is, although I was able to deny confidently his suggestion that it may be in Plymouth. I also have no idea why the lady at the post office is called Daphne; how long it would take to go to Australia by train; or what would be the outcome of a hypothetical race between the world’s fastest boat and the world’s fastest car. Sometimes I have to think hard just to tell him what day it is. When I drop him back at his mother’s on Sunday evening, I often feel as mentally drained and demoralised as a Mastermind finalist with an embarrassingly low score. Last week we went to look over the old fort at Dartmouth. In a large room downstairs there are four enormous black cannons pointing out to sea. When nobody was looking, I hopped over the rope and passed Mark a cannonball (the high ratio of weight to size was a surprise to us both). He made me explain to him how the cannons worked, and why they were pointing out to sea and how much damage they did to an enemy ship. What I didn’t know, I made up. Then I had to try to explain what an enemy is. This led into an exhaustive question-and-answer session about nationhood and why nations become belligerent; about France; about Hitler; and then back to the Germans again. Standing among the cannons in the whitewashed room, describing war and its engines to an innocent child, made the whole thing seem like a ludicrous way to carry on-Mark was incredulous, as if I were relating a fable about a race of dim-witted trolls. As Boswell once remarked, if war ceased for 1,000 years and no trace or artefact from it remained, people would come to think of it as a fabulous myth or allegory. My mouth was dry and my brain reeling after the technical, political and historical exposition; I had to go to the cafe to get a drink and recuperate. In spite of his being sternly forbidden to use the interrogative while we sat in there, he sneaked one under my guard and I found myself struggling to justify adequately why tea is brown, milk white, and why sugar can be both white and brown. No wonder the aristocracy employ professional nannies.
My landlady has an elderly German friend of hers staying with us at the moment. When Mark came for the weekend, I introduced him to Joe, and as soon as Joe was out of earshot, I whispered to Mark, “He’s a German!” As Joe is an extremely likeable, approachable man, it wasn’t long before Mark tackled him on the burning question of the day. “How many people have you killed?” he asked brightly.