War Games

Children are a blood-thirsty lot. In my early years of primary school, the playground was just as likely to be a battle-field with one group attacking another as it was to be scene of kiss chase, which, let’s face it, is pretty much the same thing.

Boys games were simple. There were two sides. You shot at each other with imaginary guns. Consequently you were either heroically victorious or heroically dead, having expired with magnificent sound effects. After a short period of lying around frozen in the moment of death, you came back to life to do a bit more shooting until the bell went when friend and foe marched arm in arm to the refrain: “We won the war, in 1964!”

Girls games: There was a lot of emphasis on dolls, kiss-chase or kidnapping boys to be your husband while you kept house. I didn’t mind the kissing or kidnapping but had a hate-hate relationship with both dolls and housework. So until I was seven, my playtime, depending on my school and social status at the time, was spent either acting out fantasy stories (alone or with my equally weird friend Joanna and a unicorn), being bullied or playing war games with the boys.

Even though, or perhaps because, all the other girls had long since caved in to gender stereotyping and sidled off to find a skipping rope, Joanna and I stuck to the war-games as long as we could. But tragically, the boys eventually decided they didn’t really want girls involved anymore. Was this because the boys were challenged by our ability to look more dead than they could (I practised quite a lot in readiness for an acting career) or because Joanna and I not only wanted to a story to explain the battle but also include the unicorn? In the end we were sent off the battlefield to be nurses purely so that periodically we could touch the fallen and make them come back to life.

When I was eight we moved from England to Wales. I found that while terminology changed, the fundamental rules of playground engagement were roughly the same including bullying, which, it turned out, is truly a game without frontiers.

Whether because of our age or local custom, there was definitely no mixing of the sexes in the playground. Now I had to arm myself for a darker kind of conflict: big girls’ games. On the face of it, these simply involved skipping ropes and elastics, learning nonsensical complicated rhymes, avoiding falling on one’s face and talking about the fashion credentials of each other’s clothes. But in truth it was a cold warfare of double-talk with a constant undercurrent of oneupwomanship. I never ever learnt how to crack the secret code, but nevertheless learnt early on that undercover negotiations worthy of Le Carre meant that the girl with the power was not necessarily the girl who won the game and the girl you needed to keep on your side was almost certainly your deadliest enemy.

Outside of school, in long hot summer evenings, all the village children played one massive game of Cowboys and Indians. This involved running around in the bracken and climbing trees, ambushing each other, generally without a clear idea who was which. Although I’d left the unicorn in Berkshire, I was still desperate for a storyline and in my head I was a beautiful, mysterious Indian princess, outlined against the sunset sky waiting for her hero. (Fortunately – my new friend, despite understanding the yearning for a story, could be relied on to get me down out of the line of sight when I was about to be shot by a Cowboy with no romance in his soul.)

The point is, there was always an enemy. We just weren’t sure who they were or whose side we were on. Brought up at a time when TV consisted of three channels and only showed Westerns and World War II films, it’s perhaps not surprising that in the playground we wondered whether we were still at war with Germany if not the Apache. We sort of knew we weren’t. We were pretty certain the war had finished some time before 1964, but it was all a bit foggy. Our grandparents talked about the war, our parents referred to it. On TV it filtered into dramas, comedies, films. It was as if it had never ended. Or as if people were sorry it had.

My father had a great deal of imagination but little sensitivity, so that on the one hand he told stories which made us certain that it was just a matter of time before we met a dragon, on the other hand he didn’t wonder whether an inquisitive little girl should listen to quite so much news. I remember very clearly hearing about battles in Israel, firmly convinced it was all to do with the crucifixion because when you’re three, the difference between last Easter and two thousand years ago is negligible. Then there was the reporting of the Prague Spring, which took place on my father’s thirtieth birthday. I recall asking where Czechoslovakia was and worried when they said it was where our car, a Skoda, came from. What if the people with tanks came to get it back?

Anxiety about war, therefore, started very early on. I felt conscious in some background way, that someone was out to get me. I just didn’t know who.

The IRA seemed to be the most likely. My parents both worked in the public sector. Letter bombs were delivered to my mother’s office and my father’s scruffy old briefcase, left on an office landing, was partially dismantled by security staff as a suspect package. If it looked disreputable beforehand, it looked a lot worse afterwards but national security had been threatened by nothing worse than a couple of science fiction novels, his own scribblings and an empty tupperware (my father was never known to leave a lunch uneaten.)

Initially the only conflict I thought the Soviet Union could trigger was a recurring argument between socialist Dad and his Conservative father. I think they thought that Communism and by association, socialism, undermined the whole calm conformity of the British way of life and was the unlocking of the gate to general chaos and anarchy. This possibility so terrified my grandmother that she refused to shop in the Co-op. To my father’s teenage shame, my grandfather had once refused to give water to a passing member of one of the Aldermaston marches on the grounds that he disapproved of any challenge to the status quo.

By the time I was the teenager, a pacifist, I more anxious than ever about conflict. I was no longer worried about the Germans. I had a German pen friend. My grandfather was vaguely worried that through her I would marry a foreigner (the irony of this is that one of his own grandfathers was from what is now the Ukraine.) But I wasn’t sure that a ecologically, community minded German wasn’t preferable to a miserable Briton. Inner city discontent, industrial action, high unemployment, apartheid, IRA bombings, race riots, women’s rights all wove themselves into the flag waving, petrol bombing, picket line fires-in-oil-drums tapestry of my teens. Meanwhile on TV archetypal stereotypes with their casual racism: the dolly birds and frigid wives, the lazy workers, stupid Irish, singing Welsh, mean Scots, class-obsessed English, were starting to flicker and fade. Television had become a distorted mirror of a society which was fracturing and reforming.

In 1980, the BBC started to teach Russian. I only learnt how to say thank-you and goodbye before the programme was hastily withdrawn when the USSR had invaded Afghanistan.

The sabre rattling started in earnest shortly after. Or at least, that’s when I noticed it. In the sixth form, we endlessly discussed our fears about the bickering between the Soviet Union and the USA. Could the Falklands War escalate with interference from outside? Would the boys I’d known since childhood eventually be conscripted to die for places we hadn’t known existed? The Falklands War ended but the tension remained. We learned how to prepare for a nuclear attack. Someone said that someone had told them that someone had said that in the event of a nuclear threat both America and Russia would destroy the whole of Western Europe to save it from being annexed by the other side. This was cheering. Our morbid discussions tended to veer towards what we’d do if we heard the four minute warning. Would you have sex with the first person available just in case it was your last chance or indeed first and only chance – even if that meant doing it with HIM? Would four minutes be long enough to do so? If not, would you commit suicide? If you didn’t kill yourself, then was it your responsibility to start a new generation in the post apocalyptic world? And if so, would you reproduce with the first person available – even if it was HIM? (We were teenagers – it was hard to keep focussed on the right things sometimes.)

I was genuinely convinced that I was not going to live to adulthood. That some idiot would press the big red button and wipe out everything and all the people – faulty yes, failed yes, but just people. I can remember feeling depressed and angry and hurt and cheated by the leaders of the world who just couldn’t work out some way of making peace. It seemed like five minutes since an adult was telling me to play nicely with my sister and here were the adults incapable of doing the same on a larger scale. I talked to my father about it and he said he remembered feeling the same about the Cuban missile crisis when he was young. It wasn’t comforting to know that in the intervening time, no-one had learned anything.

I went to a few CND meetings but the earnestness made me a little nervous and while I admired the brave conviction of the Greenham Common women I was even more nervous of them (and also, to be honest, didn’t fancy being that grubby). I miserably concluded that I was not an activist. I was going to die angry but unheard (albeit clean.)

In 1981, my German penfriend invited me to stay with her family and they took me to see the fence.

It was a beautiful summer’s day and we were in the middle of nowhere. We had climbed up a small mountain and passed a life size Calvary. Suddenly we were in a field with a waist high hand rail and maybe fifty yards away across some longer grass, there was a tall wire fence with watch towers and high walkways patrolled by armed soldiers.

“Be careful,” said my pen friend’s father, “That’s a mine field. And don’t take photographs.”

I remember staring at it, not quite believing it was real, watching as one of the soldiers stopped his restless walking back and forth and turned to stare back at us. Impossible to tell at that distance what age he was. Impossible to know what lies he has been told about my culture and what lies I’d been told about his.

Under the lazy blue sky and across the waving treacherous grass, I just knew that I didn’t want to kill him and I didn’t want to be dead.

Eight years later, I was watching TV film of the Berlin wall being broken down, three years after that, I was standing on a street in Bucharest looking at bullet holes and an empty presidential palace, twenty years after that, my next door neighbour was from Belarus.

In 2013, we took our son to his GCSE options evening and were told that the history course covered the Cold War. I looked at the teacher and realised that she would have been too young to have remembered it, that it was history to her, whereas to me, it was a backdrop; that it coloured my teenage and early adult years with an underlying dread I have never quite shaken off.

Now, the anxiety felt by my teenage son and daughter is the fear that there just might be a terrorist in their midst. Does it comes to the same thing? They feel depressed and angry and cheated by people wanting to destroy something for reasons which miss the point of humanity, which is that the person beside you or across the border, or on the other side of the world is ninety-nine times out of a hundred, a beautiful creation, faulty yes, failed yes, but just another person with hopes and dreams and loves, who wants to grow up and leave in peace.

And yet here we are, still squaring up to each other, like boys in a playground. Like girls in a playground, still making secret deals and whispering behind each other’s backs. And still not really certain who or what we’re fighting and whose side we should be on.

green fieldsCopyright 2016 by Paula Harmon. All rights belong to the author and material may not be copied without the author’s express permission

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