I try not to be too overprotective as a father, but it’s a hard line to navigate. Needless to say, I want to keep my daughter, Jessica, as safe as possible, but I also want her to learn independence. It’s a tricky thing. I have memories of a school friend who developed a crippling fear of the colour yellow just from the sheer number of Post-It stickers his parents would leave around the house for him. I don’t want to be that parent.
Then a few weeks ago, I took Jessica to see the Crown Jewels. As we waited in the queue, she couldn’t hide her excitement at the prospect of seeing a real crown that belonged to a real queen – plus she’d been eating ice cream all day and had enough sugar in her to launch a satellite. The moment we got into the exhibit, she bounded through the eerily-lit halls, gazing at the crowns, the sceptres, and the diamond-encrusted swords, with a huge grin on her face.
‘They’re beautiful, aren’t they?’ I said.
As she gazed at a solid gold punch bowl, she paused a moment and turned back to me.
‘Daddy?’ she said.
‘What’s hung, drawn and quartered?’
I eyed her uneasily. A tour guide had been discussing Guy Fawkes’ execution as we’d waited outside, but I’d assumed that Jessica had been too caught up in her ice cream to notice.
‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ I replied. ‘It’s just, you know, it’s grown up stuff.’
She nodded again.
‘Do they draw them, like in a painting?’ she asked.
‘Yes. Hey, look at those diamonds, they’re amazing, huh?’
She eyed me carefully, a suspicious little smile creeping across her face. ‘Daddy!’
I swear, six-year olds are the world’s most efficient lie detectors – MI5 should install a soft-play area.
‘It’s what they used to do to criminals,’ I said. ‘A long time ago.’
‘They used to, you know…kill them.’
‘Then draw pictures of them?’
‘Jessie, sweetie, you’ve got a whole room full of crowns to look at.’
‘But I want to know what they did.’
‘When you’re older.’
‘Is it bad?’
And there’s no good answer to that. If I say no, then why aren’t I talking about it – but if I say yes, then she’s never going to let it go, and those three words ‘hung’, ‘drawn’, and ‘quartered’ are going to replace ‘I am Moana!’ as her new mantra. Either way, the technicalities of being disemboweled, beheaded, then dismembered weren’t part of any conversation I was going to have with her. I tried to come up with some middle-ground analogy. You know how we cut up your spaghetti before you eat it? But that sounded even worse. Was I being overprotective in not just telling her? It’s part of history, after all, and is thankfully long gone – but there’s the imagery of it, and all the questions that would no doubt follow. How do you introduce a blood-stained, medieval executioner into a world whose main driving force is Alvin and the Chipmunks?
No. I wouldn’t tell her.
I crouched down in front of her. ‘They used to ship criminals out to a tiny prison in the middle of the sea,’ I said. ‘No windows, they’d sit in the darkness for the rest of their lives with nothing to eat but pebbles and old newspaper.’
I figured that was nasty enough without going overboard. And she looked kind of sold, but in that vaguely uncertain way, like a customer staring at a used-car dealer.
‘But…but I don’t understand the name,’ she said. ‘What does it mean?’
‘It was the name of the ship that took them out there. The Hung Drawn and Quartered…it had black sails, and an owl that used to scratch the names of the prisoners into the ship’s hull with its claws.’
She eyed me very, very carefully, then nodded.
Yep. Sold. There you go – when in doubt, use an owl.
Even though the questions then came – where’s the prison, and how many people were there – I was much happier explaining these things away than trying to sprinkle sugar on severed heads and entrails.
And that was our day. Overprotective or not, Jessica saw the Crown Jewels, and I added the good ship Hung Drawn and Quartered to the same fictitious list as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.
The parental adventure continues.