A fighting chance

Gary Day on life after the Army, teenagers and technology, lost childhoods and 90 years of the RAF

December 18, 2008

Jack joined the Army, said his parents, "because if he had stayed at home he would only have got into trouble" (A Soldier's Story, BBC Two, Wednesday 9pm). It's hard to see how much more trouble Tottenham could offer than the Helmand province of Afghanistan. One offers a scuffle outside a chip shop, the other gunfire, suicide bombers and "improvised explosive devices".

But if you were caught in either place, you'd want Jack by your side. His commanding officer described him as "fearless, occasionally to the point of recklessness". He likes to stand up when firing at the enemy, said his friend Jason. And he uses a big gun, one not meant to be handheld, in order "to give them a good hiding".

When he isn't shooting at the Taleban, Jack is helping to train soldiers in the Afghan National Army. But they prefer to share a spliff instead of fight. "It's their culture, innit," observes Jack. One tried to shoot a dog but the bullet passed through his foot before bouncing up into a mate's chest. They rolled another joint as the victim was loaded on to a helicopter.

Jack lost practically all the members of his patrol to a suicide bomber. "How can you fight that? You can't," he said, answering his own question, "you can't." Back at barracks in Aldershot, Jack found it hard to adjust. He had shaken hands with death and now had to man reception. He did not know how to deal with the war or his part in it. "People say I should talk about it, but if I do they don't believe it or they don't know what to say."

So Jack looked for the sort of trouble he could handle. He assaulted a police officer and broke the jaw of a man waiting for a taxi. Jack escaped a custodial sentence but left the Army. He ended where he started. No qualifications and no prospects. But with this difference. Jack is now ready to explode.

The teenager, chirped James May, was invented in 1950 (James May's Twentieth Century, BBC Two, Thursday 7pm). Boy, would I like to get my hands on the person responsible for that particular addition to the human race. Before the mid century, James continued cheerfully, there wasn't the technology to allow teenagers to express themselves. Having just received the daughter's mobile phone bill, I wish things had remained that way.

It all started with Wallace Carothers, who produced the world's first fully synthetic fabric, nylon. Without that string of goo we would not have teenage fashion. Like the shell suit. The rest is not, as in Hamlet, silence, but a crescendo of noise from the crystal to the compact disc. Teenagers, James concludes, teach us that technology is fun. That's just what I thought when one of them used an aerosol spray to declare his love for the daughter on the garden wall.

It's our fault for not bringing them up properly. Apparently we don't converse with our children, we just tell them what to do. This was one of the topics discussed in A Revolution in Childhood (BBC Four, Thursday 10pm). Others included play, technology and the "me generation". Chaired by Martha Kearney, the panel consisted of Tim Gill, a specialist on children's play; Tanya Byron, author of the Byron review, which examined the effects of computer games and internet use on children's development; Teresa Cremin, professor of education at The Open University; Jay Belsky, director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families and Social Issues; and Lord Winston, presenter of the series Child of our Time.

And what does any group of adults say about the young? Why, that things were better in their day, of course. Tim blew up cowpats but the contemporary child barely gets beyond the garden gate. Tim had a lot to say about play. He said it in a very quiet voice. He might have said something very interesting. Who knows? Tim certainly thought so, as he applauded himself after each contribution. But the image that stayed with me was of a little boy, Tyrese, banging an empty can against his head. "I'm trying to bust up my head," he declared to the camera.

The Royal Air Force is 90 years old this year (RAF at 90, BBC Two, Friday 9pm). We kept hearing snippets of the speaking clock throughout the programme. The smell of rubber, metal and petroleum is to a pilot what madeleine is to Proust. The RAF's finest hour was the Battle of Britain. But that was also the time when Arthur Harris ordered his bombers to obliterate German cities. From the back of a Lancaster, Berlin looked like molten gold. In its infancy the RAF terrified desert tribes in the region that is now Iraq. Some things don't change.

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