Being British: Captain Mainwaring and Coronavirus

Can there ever be such a thing as a national character? Is it really possible to distill the attitudes, behaviours and beliefs of millions of people across multiple generations into a generalised concept of a society? Is it fair to represent Britain as a bulldog, France as a cock (erel), and Germany as an accountant?

Of course not. And yet at the same time, the stories we tell ourselves about our national character provide an important insight into the values we aspire to and the ideals we wish to hold. As spurious as they often are, these ideas form the mental landscape that shapes our view of the world, and never are they more important than at a time of national and international crisis.

That’s why, once again, the British are talking about the war.

‘Our grandparents were asked to go to war,’ say all the memes. ‘We’re being asked to sit on the sofa.’

I have a European friend who is bewildered by how much the British talk about the war. For a country that has existed for hundreds of years and once ruled over a quarter of the world, it does seem odd that we choose to celebrate an event when we had our backs to the wall, lost an empire, and had to give up our place at the table to the bigger boys, rather than hark back to the glory days when we were still on top.

What this overlooks is that our celebration of the ‘Blitz spirit’ has nothing to do with war, or fighting prowess, or military might – it’s about standing firm in the face of adversity. The British national character, the character we’re so proud of, is our tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. It’s Drake leading a rag-tag fleet against the Spanish Armada. It’s Nelson sailing at the numerically superior French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. It’s Wellington standing firm against the Imperial Guard at Waterloo. It’s 100 soldiers facing off against 4000 Zulus at Rorke’s Drift, and it’s Britain standing alone against a Nazi Germany that had conquered the whole of Europe.

Of course, this is just one view of these events, and they were more complicated and multifaceted than presented here, but that doesn’t matter – what matters is that this is how we choose to remember them. We’re an island nation perched on the edge of Europe, part of but separate from it – stubborn, independent, outnumbered yet punching above our weight.

It’s no surprise that one of our favourite quotes is from Henry V on the eve of Agincourt (as Shakespeare writes it): ‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.’ If we could pick someone who exemplified Britishness, it would be our wartime leader, Winston Churchill. We will fight them on the beaches, never was so much owed by so many to so few, this is their finest hour.

British culture is practically a cult of the underdog, of keeping our heads when all about us are losing theirs, and persevering come what may. Our unofficial motto is ‘Keep calm and carry on,’ and unless you understand that, you’ll never understand either Brexit or our response to coronavirus. 

Of course, if I’m being honest, I think the best representation of Britishness isn’t Churchill but Captain Mainwaring, a ridiculously pompous, arrogant character from the sitcom Dad’s Army (1968-1977). Now before you accuse me of maligning my country, allow me to explain.

For those who have never seen the endless reruns, Dad’s Army is about a platoon of British Home Guard during WWII, formed from men too old, too infirm, or too malingering to fight in the regular forces. Set in the fictional South Coast village of Walmington-on-Sea, these have-a-go heroes work their jobs by day and stand ready to defend against invasion at night with homemade weapons and makeshift tactics. It’s the very embodiment of the British underdog spirit and has reflected, shaped and reinforced much of how we see ourselves today, even the theme tune: ‘Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler, if you think old England’s done?’ This is despite the fact that the characters are mostly buffoons.

Easily my favourite, the man who truly represents the spirit of Britain, is the platoon’s leader, Captain Mainwaring. Snobbish, xenophobic, with delusions of grandeur and an inflated sense of his own importance, it would be easy to write him off, particularly as much of the humour is laughing at him, at how ridiculous he is, at how he undermines his own best interests. He is, indeed, every negative thing you can say about the British, if you’re on the outside, looking in.

But beneath all the bluster and pretension, the awkwardness and arrogance, is a man genuinely devoted to his country, trying his best to do his duty, who does the right thing when it matters and is by far the bravest, most decisive character in the show. While Corporal Jones is running around in a flap crying, ‘Don’t panic, don’t panic!’ and pessimistic Scottish undertaker Fraser is sitting in a corner moaning, ‘We’re doomed, doomed,’ Mainwaring is the man who steps up and takes control and saves the day. In the 1971 movie, thinking they are being invaded, he barricades the road and prepares to face German tanks with a single shotgun. Later, he confronts a downed Luftwaffe pilot with nothing but guts, risking his own life to rescue a roomful of hostages. While his faults might be laughable, he’s redeemed by his loyality, bravery, dedication and tenacity.

That is Britain. We’re arrogant, xenophobic, stubborn, pompous and slightly ridiculous. When everyone else is going left, we go right through sheer bloodymindedness. You can laugh at us all you want, but don’t ever underestimate us. We’re the underdogs, and that’s the way we like it, and when our backs are to the wall, you’d better not rule us out, because that’s when we Brits triumph.

In fact, I see a lot of Captain Mainwaring in Boris Johnson. People call him dithering, indecisive, slow to act – a buffoon promoted beyond his ability. But cometh the man, cometh the hour. He understands our national character better than anyone. He tells us we don’t need to panic, though many of us will die. He tells us the way ahead is hard, but we can take it. The allusions to the war are because we know that when facing doom and gloom, the British are more than capable of weathering the storm.

From the outside, our response to coronavirus might appear fatalistic, irresponsible, laid-back even. The fact is, we won’t know the effects of our different approaches until way after the outbreak has ended and all the numbers have been crunched. We could try something different, I suppose. We could panic or quarantine; we could do what other countries have done and lock everything down; we could give in to despair and terror.

It just wouldn’t be very British.

Now wash your hands, you stupid boy!

(And just as I was about to publish this post, I see Richard Littlejohn has written a Dad’s Army parody about the coronavirus!)

Mother-Baby Groups

Lizzie is regularly taking Izzie to mother-baby groups, and for my sins I have accompanied her to a few. I have to say, hats off to her, because it allows the baby to socialise with other babies/become overstimulated/pick up and incubate enough germs to start her own chemical weapons factory. But this is a good thing, apparently.

I say hats off to Lizzie because if it were down to me, Izzie would never set foot in one – or bottom, as the case may be – since I’ve discovered that I cannot stand mother-baby groups.

I thought that I was into babies because I loved Izzie so much, but the truth is that I’m into my baby, not babies per se, so my tolerance for and liking of the screaming, crying, vomiting, farting, pooping, dribbly offspring of other people is not the same as my tolerance for and liking of the screaming, crying, vomiting, farting, pooping, dribbly issue of my own loins. And when there are ten of them crying all at once, it’s damn hard not to tap out and say, ‘That’s me done, my ears are bleeding and my blood-pressure’s so high I can feel my heart beating in my eye-sockets!’

But that’s not the only problem with them. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome, I struggle with social situations at the best of times, but good golly gosh, mother-baby groups are hard work. They can be very cliquey, there’s a competition to see whose child is most advanced for their age, and everyone acts like the world’s greatest mother, making it really difficult to ask questions like, ‘How do I get her bogies out of her nose when her nostrils are so small?’ and, ‘Is it normal to have this dreadful fear of inadequacy and the constant spectre of your shortcomings as a parent?’ Because everyone seems to pretend they’re the living embodiment of Mother Nature, and we won’t condescend to talk to you because you’re clearly a beginner in this parenting game.

Being the only adult with a penis, you tend to stick out like a sore thumb too, and whenever I step into one of those groups, I feel my identity slowly sucked from my body and replaced with breastfuls of oestrogen. But that’s not my main issue with these groups, nor is it simply because they’re full of women – it’s because they’re full of mothers.

When you have a child, people stop seeing you as a person and start to see you as that thing that carries the cute baby around and takes it away again when it starts to cry or needs changing. ‘How’s the baby? Where’s the baby? Look at the baby! Ahhh.’ This transition from ‘individual’ to ‘baby’s plus-one’ can be particularly difficult and contribute to postnatal depression. When you’re coping with a momentous lifestyle change – marriage, divorce, coming out, changing career, abandoning the dye-job and letting it go grey – you need the support of the people around you who know you and see you as you to get through it. They remind you who you really are, what really matters, and smooth over the rough edges of your new identity.

But when you have a baby, everyone you know switches their attention to the little one, so not only has your life changed dramatically, your emotional support structure abandons you to focus in on the very thing that’s brought about the change. Frankly, it can be a bummer.

So, you go to mother-baby groups hoping to meet like-minded souls who know exactly what’s it’s like to be seen as nothing more than ‘mother’, people crying out for conversation about something other than nappies, and breastfeeding, and the day-to-day slog of childcare.

Then you get there.

Here’s a typical conversation at a mother-baby group:

‘Baby, baby, baby, I’m a mother, baby, baby.’

‘Ah, baby, baby, baby, I’m a mother too, baby, baby, baby.’

‘Breastfeeding, nappies, weaning, baby, baby, did you know I’m a mother, baby.’

‘Nappies, nappies, baby, I’m a mother, men just don’t understand.’

And so on, and so forth.

The only other topic of conversation is where they’ll meet up during the week to discuss being mothers some more. It’s like they’ve become Stepford Wives, or something – the thing that made them human has been sucked out and they’ve turned into boring child-rearing robots. For crying out loud, ladies, you’re people as well as mothers! You have other dimensions! There is a whole wide world out there filled with art, literature, politics, entertainment, sport, work, relationships, hope, dreams, joy, love – why on earth don’t you lift your eyes from your child for half a minute to see it?

Of course, I’m being facetious – I’m exaggerating. But it’s to prove a point. This morning I walked along the beach with the dog for ninety minutes. Every so often I’d pass a couple of women pushing their babies in prams, because it seems that young mothers love to go out in pairs, walk side-by-side, and completely block the promenade for everyone else. I understand it – nobody wants to stay in all day every day with their baby, and when the weather is nice, a walk along the beach in the sun with a friend is exactly what the doctor ordered.

But here’s the rub: as I passed these people – I must have met six such pairs today – I’d catch snippets of their conversations, and every single one of them was talking about babies and mothering.

The babies are asleep. You’re walking in the sunshine with your friend. The sea is lapping lazily against the shore. The air feels great in your lungs. It’s time to be you. And you’re still  talking about babies!?

That’s the thing I struggle with. I guess you’ll say, ‘It’s a mother-baby group, of course they’ll talk about babies and being mothers,’ and you’d have a point. You could also say, ‘But you’re talking about babies and parenting,’ and yes I am, but I’m not the walking embodiment of fatherhood and I never pretended to be – and it’s my blog, so nah, nee, nah, nee, nah, nah!

I’m sure people who enjoy mother-baby groups, and enjoy being earth mothers, will think I’m a silly man, so what do I know, and that’s fine. But we didn’t erase our identities the moment our children were born, and we don’t cease to be adults with adult needs just because we look after children all day. True, it informs a great deal of how we think about things – a couple of people I know died from carbon monoxide poisoning the other day, a mother and her son, and all I could think about was how awful it would be to lose Lizze and Izzie in like manner – but we are not one-dimensional characters just because we’re parents.

With Izzie on my lap I talk about the science behind the new Matt Damon movie, or the latest atrocity on the news, the etymology of the word ‘halcyon’ and how rough Kate Moss looks in her latest advert, if the new Facebook promo is really using the Pixies’ Where Is My Mind? on piano, or why the band PVRIS isn’t better known. If I one day found that all I could talk about was nappies, weaning, feeding, teething, and babies, babies, babies – well, that would be the day I realised I needed to find a new interest, and fast, before I ceased to be a human being and became a robo-nanny. Actually, come to think of it, that sounds rather fun…

Early Empty Nest Crisis

I’m pretty sure I’ve lost myself somewhere along the way. I forget where I read it, but the Roman approach to parenting was to fit your life into the baby’s for the first year, and fit the baby’s life into yours thereafter. Actually, I might have made that up. The Romans don’t strike me as the most enlightened of parents: they didn’t even give girls first names.

Wherever it comes from, the idea sounds rather good in principle. However, I’m starting to realise that it’s neither practical nor particularly healthy.

Before the arrival of Izzie, Lizzie went to her dad’s farm every Monday and Friday evening for a meal. This is a routine she’s done for years and one that suits us all – she gets to return to her childhood home for a nice roast, her and her dad get special family time, and I get a few hours to myself to unwind. And having Asperger’s Syndrome, downtime to unwind is very important.

Using your intellect to compensate for your social deficits is, frankly, exhausting. What neurotypical people pick up intuitively as they grow up we have to consciously process and learn. Like a lot of people with AS, my behaviour is not natural but the result of careful study of books, imitation of the people around me, and endless practice conversations I carry out in my head every night when I go to bed. So whenever I meet up with people, I’m also thinking about how much eye contact I’m making, the volume and tone of my voice, the possible alternate interpretations of the words I’m using, and trying to decipher their body language and paralanguage and verbal language to make sure I’m understanding correctly, as well as whatever we happen to be doing, from eating a meal to playing crazy golf. One-on-one is okay, but the bigger the group, the more I have to work to keep functioning.

Trouble is, people rarely act in ways I’ve prepared for, so social situations can be incredibly stressful, before, during and after. For people with Asperger’s Syndrome, doing something that requires a close attention to detail enables us to relax, switch off the social part of our brain, and recharge our cognitive batteries for the next encounter. So after spending a couple of hours socialising, I need five or six hours to mentally recover. Otherwise I start to get a little irritable and I’m unable to effectively process all the information I’m picking up on.

Living with Lizzie, and now Izzie, I am constantly ‘on’. While for neurotypical people, sitting chatting with a guest over a cup of coffee might be relaxing, for me it is hard work, and there have been more guests to the house of late than in the past three years. So when Lizzie took Izzie to her dad’s this past Friday and Monday night, I should have seen it as a welcome chance to recover.

‘What a gift,’ people have said. ‘A night off: how lucky are you?’

Except, I don’t feel lucky. Normally I would do a jigsaw puzzle, build a model, make a list of all the bands I can think of starting with each letter of the alphabet, from Alice In Chains, Bush and Cold through to X-ecutioners, Yellowcard and Zwan (it gets harder down towards the tail end).

I stared at the wall for three hours.

My identity has become so bound up with being a dad that when I do get time to myself I have no idea what to do with it. I’m having an empty nest crisis after four weeks!

If, as the Romans (might have) said, you need to fit the baby into your life after a year, you need to have a life to fit it into. So I need to find myself again, and fast, because who knows how much harder it’ll be to remember who I am after twelve months of this?

Three Weeks of Growth

Izzie is three weeks old. Before she discharged us, our midwife warned us about Day 21. Apparently, new mums are the most fertile they’ll ever be today. Not realising this, many women go for their six-week check to discover that there is another bundle of poopy joy on the way. So we had a lecture about women’s fertility that ended with the catchy refrain: ‘contraception, contraception, contraception!’

Can you imagine? You’re just starting to get the hang of buttoning up sleepsuits without attaching the leg poppers to the stomach poppers and you’re back to morning sickness, mood swings and hair-thinning financial worries. Just as you’re weaning one child you’ll be trying to get the other to breastfeed.

I told the midwife she had nothing to worry about in that regard. Energy is at a premium right now and when I get into bed, the last thing I want to do is waste any. Besides, last time I looked down there, in the operating theatre, it was a car crash: I’ll probably need counselling before I have the guts to go anywhere near it again!

The midwife letting us go is both gratifying and butt-clenchingly uncomfortable. As people with ‘special needs’ we had a special midwife, although she was more used to dealing with alcoholics, drug addicts and battered wives than a couple with Asperger’s Syndrome. She was meant to stay twenty-eight days but we’re doing so well she decided we didn’t need the additional safety net. I must admit, I loved that safety net.

Lizzie says that it’s real now, though why she thought it wasn’t real before is anybody’s guess. She says she doesn’t feel like a mum. I know what she means. I have no idea what a ‘dad’ is supposed to feel like, but I expected it to be different than this.

Despite the fact I should know better, I have a weakness for believing external stimuli can cause personal growth. When I was at middle school, ten years old, I’d see the bigger kids walking towards secondary school and think, ‘When I’m that age I’ll be confident and able to cope.’ But when I grew up it was harder still – age is no indication of capability. The same with travelling: I thought if I walked down the street in some out-of-the-way town in a rainforest or desert I’d somehow be taller, and cooler, and better looking. Instead, I was the same old me, only more sunburned and slightly malnourished.

I slipped into that trap with parenthood. I thought I’d become a different person, that as soon as I saw Izzie it would be like flicking a switch and suddenly I’d be mature and wise and capable. Instead, on first seeing my daughter I thought she looked like someone had left a blue sock in a white wash. Then I wondered why she looked Mongolian. I think if I’ve changed, it has taken place over the past nine months and in such incremental stages I didn’t notice it.

I don’t feel wise or capable or mature – when Izzie’s asleep I use her arms to do the YMCA dance – but I guess we must be doing something right.

Lizzie got upset when the midwife left. It being day 21, I told her there’s a sure fire way to have her back in our lives for the next nine or so months. Judging by Lizzie’s response to that suggestion, she’s not that keen to see the midwife again!

The Twilight Zone (pt II)

There have been more mysterious occurrences, but these are of the everyday variety that I imagine every parent experiences. Despite having dozens of muslins, they inexplicably vanish the very moment you need one. I sterilise six bottles and before you can say ‘deja vu’ I’m sterilising six bottles again. And last night we spent an hour looking for an errant nipple shield that we discovered had somehow leapt from Lizzie’s lap all the way into the dog’s bed on the other side of the room and chewed itself up. Weird.

Once you’ve entered the twilight zone, you rapidly lose your connection to the world around you. Before Izzie was born I would always know the time of day, the day of the week, and the date of the month. Now these things seem irrelevant, as important to me as if someone told me there’s been a coup in a country I’ve never heard of on the other side of the world. What difference does it make to my life if it’s Tuesday and not Monday? I think of the me that checked his watch every five minutes and think, ‘How quaint.’

Enhancing this sense of dissociation from the world is the fluidity of your identity. The cornerstones of who you are, those things that anchored you to life, pull out of the earth and you find yourself adrift.

Before the birth I had a great idea. I would scale back who I am, get rid of Gillan the author, Gillan the partner, Gillan the lover, Gillan the artist, Gillan the student, Gillan the charity worker, Gillan the model-maker, and all the other Gillans, and simply become Gillan the dad. Then I wouldn’t become frustrated at not being able to do all the things I wanted to do, because I was doing everything that Gillan the dad needed to do. Over time I’d let the other Gillans back in, but for the foreseeable future I was a dad and no more.

It was a dumb idea. Painfully, naively dumb. I never ceased being Gillan the partner, and in fact I could not be Gillan the dad without being Gillan the partner – the two are inseparable. And Gillan the dad is such a new identity that it could blow away on the breeze.

It’s also unhealthy to be nothing but a dad, or indeed a mum. You’d quickly burn out if that was all you did, and then you’d be no good to anyone. The few minutes I steal here and there throughout the day to write this blog, giving Gillan the author his due, keep me identifiably me. It grants me a hold on my life, tenuous though it may be. Without it, I’d be drifting through a sea of nappies and bottles in ill-fitting clothes, facing reflections I didn’t recognise.

I’d recommend all new parents keep one part of your life to yourself in the early weeks: it makes you a better parent. Instead of dividing yourself into different personalities, acting how you think you ought to act, just be you. Gillan the dad, Gillan the partner, and all the other Gillans, stem from Gillan the man. And so long as I remember that, I’ll get us all through this wilderness unscathed.

That said, Gillan the lover might be taking a back seat for a while.