Our writers are (lovingly) foisting pop-culture favourites on their unsuspecting nippers. This week, Hannah Dunleavy and her eight-year-old nephew go back in time to the Second World War.
It’s half-term and I’ve got my eight-year-old nephew to stay for a few days. He’s a voracious reader and always brings a book for us to read at bedtime but never stays long enough to read a whole one. I reckon I could do Mastermind on the middle six chapters of everything David Walliams has ever written.
This time, I decide, I’m going to pick what we read, so I go in search of those favourites I couldn’t bear to be parted with or leave in boxes in lofts. Once I’ve discounted all the Roald Dahl – which he’s already read – I’m left with a small pile of books, all of them set during the Second World War.
Suddenly, sniffing The Silver Sword, The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe and Carrie’s War, I remember the (now ridiculous) indignation I felt as a child that I had not lived through “the war”. There was no doubt in my mind that if any youngster had the fortitude and sense of adventure necessary to start a new life or scour a bombsite, it was me.
My Nan, who liked to call an omadhaun an omadhaun, thought I was, well, you know the rest. I learned after she died that the house her family was living in during the Blitz was damaged by a bomb, which, for whatever reason, failed to explode. I’d have had dozens of questions if I’d known. Which might be why she didn’t tell me.
So, this little pile of books was responsible. Or I was a young warmonger. One or the other. Let’s blame the books. Right, let’s read one to my nephew. Let’s pass this shit on.
There was no doubt really that I’d read him The Machine Gunners and I search frantically for it, pointlessly pulling other books off the shelves like that New York City Library ghost in Ghostbusters.
Robert Westall’s 1975 novel takes place in the fictional seaside town of Garmouth, based on Tynemouth, the author’s childhood home, itself bombed in the Second World War. After a German plane crash lands in the woods near their homes, a growing gang of children takes possession of a machine gun, build a fort, contribute to the downing of a second enemy plane and capture its pilot. It’s both really exciting and a great big dollop of social history. What more could a children’s book possibly be?
When I find it, I sit in the havoc I’ve created and read the first page. Chas wakes in his family’s air-raid shelter to discover his parents have gone back to the house without him. He finds them in the kitchen, his father drinking a pint of tea (legend) and his mother sobbing silently at the news a neighbour has been found “half in the front garden, half in the back”.
It occurs to me that if my nephew doesn’t like it, I will write him out of my imaginary will.
I’m hopeful, though, because the boy’s got a healthy interest in history and when we went to the Tower of London he was one of the only kids to sit through a play about signing up for the First World War and the suffragettes. This gives me hope for him both as a Machine Gunners fan and a human being.
We get off to a good start when I tell him I’m going to read him my favourite book when I was his age and he just says OK. No questions. He doesn’t give a shit who it’s by or what it’s about. He doesn’t care that it’s yellowing, or that the cover’s mostly pink. If it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough for me. I find it all very reassuring.
In fact, as I read and he and the cats sit engrossed, the whole scene becomes sepia-tinged with its good old-fashioned wholesomeness. Punctured only by me explaining what certain words mean. Like swastika.
Around the time I’d been hoping to be having a nice cup of tea and watching Catastrophe, we are on the third chapter, which is a proper gem as two of the youngsters find themselves caught outside during an air raid. It’s a remarkably simple but effective piece of writing, as “a great hammer bangs on the dark tin tray of a sky.”
We continue the next night (not the cats – they use the time to pull everything out of the kitchen bin). When his mum comes to pick him up, we’ve managed five chapters. She stays the night and at bedtime he says, “I want my mum to come too.”
“That’s alright” she says, “You two should carry on reading.”
“No,” he says. “I want you to come to listen. It’s a really good story.”
It makes me happy. I make a mental note to tell him that his great-grandmother’s house was bombed in the war.
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.