washingtonpost.com
In Praise of Skinned Knees and Grubby Faces

By Conn Iggulden
Sunday, June 24, 2007

LONDON When I was 10, I founded an international organization known as the Black Cat Club. My friend Richard was the only other member. My younger brother, Hal, had "provisional status," which meant that he had to try out for full membership every other week. We told him we would consider his application if he jumped off the garage roof -- about eight feet from the ground. He had a moment of doubt as he looked over the edge, but we said it wouldn't hurt if he shouted the words "Fly like an eagle!" When he jumped, his knees came up so fast that he knocked himself out. I think the lesson he learned that day was not to trust his brother, which is a pretty valuable one for a growing lad.

I wrote "The Dangerous Book for Boys" as a handbook for boys with scenes like that from my childhood in mind. I wasn't trying to please anyone else. I was just trying to free boys to be themselves again, the way we were when my brother and I were growing up.

Back in the 1970s, our father was a schoolmaster and part of his job was caning boys. He was prepared to do this on the job, but the only time he ever brought his work home was when I stole money from him and somewhat naively put it in my moneybox. Perhaps because that punishment was a unique event, I've never stolen anything from anyone since that day.

Looking back, I realize now that my father was an incredibly patient man. He loved wood, and whenever a school threw out an oak table or mahogany benches, he would rescue them and bring them home. One day, my brother and I took all that wood and nailed it to the tree in the front garden. It was perhaps the ugliest treehouse ever built, and my father was not impressed. In fact, I think he was close to tears for a moment.

He was born in 1923. He has seen a different world -- one before television, before mobile phones and before the Internet. He flew in Bomber Command during World War II, and when he tells stories, they're always grim, but funny at the same time. He lost half a finger in one bad crash, and at various times in our childhood, he told us that he'd worked in a sausage factory and pushed the meat too far into the grinder, resulting in the best sales the factory had known; that a German sniper had recognized him flying overhead and thought, "That's Mr. Iggulden, I'll just fire a warning shot"; or that he was the new Bionic Man, but the British government could afford to replace him only a bit at a time.

His generation understood the cars they drove, could hang wallpaper and fix just about anything. In his 80s, he is still an immensely practical man, but at the same time, he still quotes poems he learned as a boy, demonstrating that a man can love a good line as much as a good dovetail joint.

Of course, my mother was important to our childhood. An Irish Catholic, she gave us a faith that endures today, as well as an appreciation for literature that made me want to be a writer from a young age. She kept chickens in a garden no more than 30 feet square in a suburb of London, and the neighbors complained about the cockerels waking them up.

When she gave birth to me, the nurse walked down a line of babies saying, "This one will be a policeman and this one will be a footballer." When the nurse came to me, she said "Ah, but this one has the face of a poet."

My father, though, made me the man I am. He was playing bridge on the night I was born. When he saw me the following morning, he said, "I hope he never has to kill anyone."

We had books in the house with titles such as "The Wonder Book of Wonders" or "Chemical Amusements and Experiments," showing their age with instructions directing you to buy "a shilling paper of Potassium Permanganate." I read them all, and I'm lucky to have all my fingers. We made bows and arrows every summer, cutting them green and hunting in the local woods. We managed to trap a raven, though I think it must have been ill. I had an idea about training it to attack so that I would be the terror of the local park. Sadly, we found it cold and stiff one morning in the chicken run.

The Black Cat Club gathered in the garden to give it a warrior's cremation. We used my father's lighter fluid and poured it over the bird where it lay in a nest of bricks. We lit it and stood back with our hands clasped in prayer. The flames roared, and I think we wept until the flames died back down again and the bird was still there. We poured more lighter fluid, and eventually realized we'd cooked the bird instead of cremating it.

When I had a son of my own six years ago, I looked around for the sort of books that would inspire him. I was able to find some practical modern ones, but none with the spirit and verve of those old titles. I wanted a single compendium of everything I'd ever wanted to know or do as a boy, and I decided to write my own. My brother, now a theater director in Leicester, a city in the midlands of England, was the obvious choice as co-writer. I had dedicated my first book "To my brother Hal, the other member of the Black Cat Club." It was official at last. I persuaded him to come and work with me 12 hours a day for six months in a shed.

We began with everything we had done as kids, then added things we didn't want to see forgotten. History today is taught as a feeble thing, with all the adventure taken out of it. We wanted stories of courage because boys love those. We wanted stories about men like Royal Air Force fighter pilot Douglas Bader, Scott of the Antarctic, the Wright Brothers -- boys like to read about daring men, always with the question: Would I be as brave or as resourceful? I sometimes wonder why people make fun of boys going to science fiction conventions without realizing that it shows a love of stories. Does every high school offer a class on adventure tales? No -- and then we complain that boys don't read anymore.

We added sections on grammar because my brother once said, "If anyone had told me there are only nine kinds of words, I'd have damn well learned them." Boys like to see the nuts and bolts of language. Of course they can empathize and imagine, but they need the structure as well. Why should the satisfaction of getting something right be denied to those who have been educated since the '70s?

We filled our book with facts and things to do -- from hunting a rabbit to growing crystals. As adults, we know that doors have been closed to us. A boy, though, can be interested in anything.

Finally, we chose our title -- "The Dangerous Book for Boys." It's about remembering a time when danger wasn't a dirty word. It's safer to put a boy in front of a PlayStation for a while, but not in the long run. The irony of making boys' lives too safe is that later they take worse risks on their own. You only have to push a baby boy hard on a swing and see his face light up. It's not learned behavior -- he's hardwired to enjoy a little risk. Ask any man for a good memory from childhood and he'll tell you about testing his courage or getting injured. No one wants to see a child get hurt, but we really did think the bumps and scratches were badges of honor, once.

Since the book was published, I've discovered a vast group that cares about exactly the same things I do. I've heard from divorced fathers who use the book to make things with their sons instead of going out for fast food and a movie. I've received e-mails from 10-year-olds and a beautifully written letter from a man of 87.

I thought I was the only one sick of non-competitive sports days and playgrounds where it's practically impossible to hurt yourself. It turned out that the pendulum is swinging back at last. Boys are different from girls. Teaching them as though they are girls who don't wash as much leads to their failure in school, causing trouble all the way. Boys don't like group work. They do better on exams than they do in coursework, and they don't like class discussion. In history lessons, they prefer stories of Rome and of courage to projects on the suffragettes.

It's all a matter of balance. When I was a teacher, I asked my head of department why every textbook seemed to have a girl achieving her dream of being a carpenter while the boys were morons. She replied that boys had had it their own way for too long, and now it was the girls' turn. Ouch.

The problem with fighting adult gender battles in the classroom is that the children always lose.

I expected a backlash. If you put the word "boys" on something, someone will always complain. One blog even promoted the idea of removing the words "For Boys" from the cover with an Exacto knife so that people's sons wouldn't be introduced to any unpleasantly masculine notions such as duty, honor, courage and competence.

The dark side of masculinity may involve gangs and aggression, but there's another side -- self-discipline, wry humor and quiet determination. I really thought I was the only one who cared about it, but I've found many thousands who care just as much.

I know there are women who can lift heavier weights than I can, but on the whole, boys are more interested in the use of urine as secret ink than girls are. We wanted to write a book that celebrated boys -- with all their differences and geeky love of knowledge, skills and stories. There just isn't anything wrong with trying to do that.

We all care about our sons -- scabby knees, competitive spirits and all. It's about time we let our schools and governments know how much we care. Let the pendulum swing.

contact@conniggulden.com

Conn Iggulden is a novelist in London.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company