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From the archives: Dad's army


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 convincingly twisted metal showed where somnething had taken a hit in the last assault. It was a truly wondrous sight which that left me almost tearful with amazement and pleasure.


'In the end, the fortress in the cupboard was Father Christmas' death-blow. No tragedy there, though, as the red uniformed fatty with a beard was replaced by a much more interesting figure: my extraordinarily talented father who, like my uncles, was exulting in his return to peacetime and wasn't even noticing that he was a quintessential battler.'


Avuncular snores suddenly sounded right. This was battle and those nasal eruptic became the crump and staccato of the shell and machine gun. The magical manifestation on my bedroom floor was both a vindication of and a challenge to my carefully nursed belief in Father Christmas. On the one hand, who could argue? Here it all was, delivered in the depths of Christmas night, according to legend. On the other hand, as one of the more corrosive of the little pragmatists I associated with pointed out, 'lf he did anything like that in every house, layin' everything out and all that, he'd never get through the street. So how does he get round the whole world?' How indeed.

Had my friends but known, they had an even stronger argument in certain information which was temporarily locked in my heart. 'Mucking around' at home one níght months before Christmas, I had idly opened an unfamiliar cupboard to reveal folded towels, linen and a fortress: unpainted, unfinished,unmistakable. My father arrived — of course — as I was goggling. Slamming the cupboard door, he lifted me gently on my way with a slippered foot to the bum, immediately apologised and said he was 'doing a job for a mate'.

My father had bought one each of an assortment of soldiers — all he could afford — made his own plaster of Paris moulds, melted down lead piping and poured figure after figure which, during late nights in October, November and December, he carefully painted according to books he borrowed on the regimental dress of various units. He was more interested in colourfulness than worried about anachronism — hence the staggering historical panoply of troops from many nations and times fighting shoulder to shoulder. These toys were made of lead. When you played with them, it was war games you played. As George Orwell remarked, telling a child to run away and play with his toy pacifists doesn't work somehow. Moreover, as my father moulded, sawed and painted at his tiny back verandah workbench each night, he would have been squinting through the smoke of his never absent cigarette. Whatever way you looked at it, from believing in Father Christmas through to lead and nicotine, it was all shockingly incorrect.

I lived in steadfast denial for another year or so, but in the end, the fortress in the cupboard was Father Christmas' death-blow. No tragedy there, though, as the red uniformed fatty with a beard was replaced by a much more interesting figure: my extraordinarily talented father who, like my uncles, was exulting in his return to peacetime and wasn't even noticing that he was a quintessential battler.


Brian Matthews, February 2002. 




Brian Matthews was honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Main image: Toy soldier (Martijn Hendrikx / Unsplash) 

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Father Christmas, War, Soldiers, Fathers



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Existing comments

Thank you, Brian. This is sublime (and I use the word advisedly) writing about the importance of heroes in the world of a youngster who had the great good fortune to have them not only in the same house but in the very same room. Your father, a quintessential battler, taught you about the sustenance of belief. And love. Requiescat in pace.

Pam | 09 June 2022  

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