I wonder if yesterday’s violent fantasies are the detritus from living my younger life in a brutalising era?
As a boy born just 12 years after World War Two, I was dunked in a legacy of violent images, which I grew to delight at. My cultural staple as a youngster was the chirpy, brave British lads taking on the military might of the Nazis, fighting them in our Spitfires, our frigates and our combat gear. It was fed through ‘action special’ comics and endless war films. Cowboys as well, as they shot the damned ‘injuns’. I can still remember the heartbreak when not allowed to stay up to watch ‘The Horse Soldiers’, a US Civil War film with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum. Laying tearfully in bed, hearing cannons roar and bullets fly downstairs.
Shooting a gun was the ultimate thrill. So one afternoon at my Auntie Stella’s house in Chingford, I took hold of my cousin’s air rifle, put a match in the end, and deliberately fired it at the side of my brother’s head, as he was watching TV. He must have cried at the pain for a good five minutes. I could have taken his eye out, or permanently damaged his hearing. I rightly carried guilt on that for years.
It feels like the post-war years carried a built-in violence, institutionalised in the world of entertainment by the reverence accorded to boxers. In schools, the regular “thrashing” and “walloping” of miscreants stretched back to a long-established public school tradition. How hard it must have been not to institutionalise this domestically by giving your kids a whack when life became too stressful.
This is how it was for me. Mum’s smacks were limited to my legs and delivered with a sting that was just about tolerable. You wouldn’t want too many of them. The awfulness came if the crime was too enormous to leave to female discipline. “Wait till your father gets home”. Six words calculated to inspire anxiety, presaging a ritual beginning with hours of semi-nausea and high dread, stomach churning at each vehicle that drew up outside. The sound of Eric’s voice ascending the stairs began the countdown to humiliation. “Take your trousers and pants down”, he would announce, before issuing however many blows the crime warranted. Sometimes I’d stop myself crying. Sometimes the pain would be too much. No surprise that smacking has become outlawed in some countries.
Forcing me to learn about boundaries through a sore bum rather than reasoning warped my love for my father. As did each punishment for telling the truth, which he had promised would always keep me safe. And so trust turned to fear. That many other parents did the same is no excuse, particularly when you consider that Eric was fond of going against the crowd.
The ritual had its variations. For example, if the punishment would be more severe than average, I would hear that “this hurts me more than it hurts you”. The worst I can remember came in my early teens. I had squeezed one of my grandmother’s breasts one sunny afternoon. I told the truth, that I had genuinely wanted to see what bosoms felt like. Of course I knew that my actions were transgressing boundaries, yet again, but was incensed at the injustice of the punishment. So halfway through I informed Eric that he wasn’t hurting me. Big mistake. Jurassic reaction. Finishing with “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about”. I went to my bedroom and wanted to die, holding a clutter of mixed emotions that took decades to unscramble.
Another time, Neil was crying even before he was hit, so scared was he of dad’s hand. He screamed the place down when the blows eventually came. Given a gun, I would have gladly walked across the landing and shot the man.
What did this Neanderthal insanity teach us? To be scared, and to begin sealing up outward expression lest the tyrant decide that he was unhappy with it. For instance, the word crap came into common usage for me sometime in the early 70s. It generally meant that something was useless or no good. My brother and I used the word frequently at home for 6 months or so before dad suddenly laid down an edict that crap was a four-letter word. I was bound to forget this, as all of my friends used it. When it inevitably tumbled out one day I was hit. I asked Dad why we couldn’t use it — and he replied: “Because I say so”. Brilliant explanation, Eric. Thoughtful way to develop Kevin’s powers of reasoning. Box it up or dad will hit you.
I used the experience not to hit our children. To resist the blueprint. A very strongly raised voice does the trick, I always found, probably no more than several times a year. Use your hands to give pleasure, not pain. A corollary benefit is discussion. The three Godier urchins were allowed to speak their piece, to argue the toss forever unless fundamental house rules were being transgressed. We wanted them to go into the world feeling powerful.
The nearest I ever came was when playing with Rory. He hit me with a sharp-edged toy on the head. Before I could even think I had hit him across the top of the head with my hand. There was no deliberation or malice aforethought, just an instinctual whack back. He was shocked, and I apologised profoundly, and tried to explain that hitting other people sometimes produced that reaction.
Parenting can be the most gruelling of tasks. I know Phyllis and Eric both did the best they could. Their models were not great. And I realise that little boys tend to find their boundaries by crashing into them and crying, before they generally march off to join the briefcase army.
Taking a second look, I would like to think my violent reveries are really about resistance, rather than impotent rage. Symbolically about refusing to bow to bullies and authority in trying situations, but more profoundly about not conforming to the myriad pressures to capitulate to restrictive social norms.
About keeping the underpants on the outside.