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From the archives: Dad's army

  • 09 June 2022
It was Christmas morning of... many years ago. The small hours. I was awake, wound to a pitch of excitement that produced somewhere in my chest of exquisite tension and made breathing difficult. I was about eight years old but, despite my advanced age, I remained a dogged believer in Father Christmas (as my family called him). This belief was maintained in the face of cynicism and derision from the youthful toughs I consorted with and despite my own unspoken qualms in moments of inconvenient rationality. Anyway, that Christmas morning, armed with my fragile faith, curled up in bed in the darkness of my room to which the skylight in the passage just outside the door lent a ghostly luminescence, I sensed his immanence.

Sensing Father Christmas' immanence in that room involved an even greater willing suspension of disbelief than you might think, because I shared it with my two uncles, Jim and Alex. Jim's snores rolled gently but insistently through the darkness like the distant gunfire from which he had so recently and with great relief escaped. Alex, an equally grateful survivor, daily expressed his relief in spectacular binges round his St Kilda watering holes, so that his snores, when at last sleep claimed him from other kinds of oblivion, were neither distant nor gentle. So, to imagine Father Christmas fairy-footing it across our worn bedroom lino amidst what sounded like the Normandy landing was a hard ask. I managed though, and, sure enough, he arrived — a dark shape carrying out indeterminate rustlings and tinkerings in the gloom.

In deference to his visit, I squeezed my eyes shut, and when I opened them after what seemed only a few minutes, day had dawned. The snores crackled on, but early sun glowed in the skylight and silver dust motes swirled in its slanting beam which, inching across the floor like a searchlight, revealed a series of marvels. A camouflaged fortress with soldiers pointing rifles through the crenellations dominated a battlefield on which tanks, platoons of diggers, gurkhas, marines and other battle-clad armies that no doubt would have been very surprised to find themselves in the same operation, confronted each other or milled around with static resolution. Inside the closed doors of the fortress, gun carriers and jeeps waited their hour. Behind the fortress, emerging from under the dressing table, a column of trucks carrying machine-gunners at the ready and flanked by foot soldiers, wound towards the action. The soldiers uniforms were meticulously painted, the trucks and guns and emplacements realistically camouflaged. Here and there, exulting