Page last updated at 13:07 GMT, Wednesday, 27 July 2005 14:07 UK

Teenagers, idealism and politics

By Alison Smith
BBC News website education reporter

Pete Johnson
Johnson talked to young people in schools and libraries
How many young people would believe that for a brief period during the 1930s, it was almost acceptable for people their own age to be in a fascist organisation?

Many have heard of Oswald Mosley, but how many are aware that at its peak around 50,000 people were members of his party?

In times when schools educate children from many different faiths, races and backgrounds, most of us assume that children are more tolerant than ever.

Through visiting schools and libraries, and while working as a teacher, author Pete Johnson found young people were fascinated by World War II and the defeat of fascism.

He found many struggled to comprehend how such a movement could have taken any kind of hold in Britain, even at a time of high unemployment.

His resulting novel, The Hero Game, examines how a teenager deals with the discovery that his grandfather, a celebrated World War II pilot, was once a member of Mosley's Blackshirts himself.

"But schoolchildren I spoke to were able to understand the concept of alienation, and that you can have an anger that eats away at you," says Johnson.

"And they could understand the idealism that existed in the beginning of Mosley's movement - challenging capitalism and the existing system and getting rid of class.

"I wanted to show that the siren call of fascism could be very attractive because it feeds on a feeling of powerlessness.

"But I also wanted to show how somebody could make a mistake, by joining such a movement, but that he could change and become somebody else."


The Hero Game's main character, Charlie, is left with feelings of confusion, betrayal and isolation after his father leaves his mother for another woman when he is 11 and is killed in a car crash shortly afterwards.

After his father's death he becomes close to his grandfather and learns avidly about his exploits as a fighter pilot, almost retreating into his grandfather's wartime existence.

Through his ambition to write his grandfather's story he stumbles upon a photograph of him as a Blackshirt, his face "contorted with rage", arm raised giving the Nazi salute.

From here on, the teenager tries to comprehend what exactly his grandfather did, and how he could have done it - pursuing the point with an almost harmful obsession.

Many young people have a great idealism and are looking for a cause. When they find it, it can be all-consuming

In 2003 Johnson attended a large anti-Iraq war rally in London, a moment which he believes politicised many young people, many of whom were taking action about something they cared about for the first time.

He spoke to many young people on the march.

"It gave them a sense of shared concern.

"It made politics into action - not just something seen in parliament - it was going beyond the politicians, and it was attractive to young people."

This was the impetus for Johnson's first novel on a political theme.

"Politics is central to the story as it was vital for Charlie to get to the truth of what his grandfather really did and believed."

And the ubiquitous notion that young people are apathetic is generally misguided, according to Johnson.

"Many young people have a great idealism and are looking for a cause. When they find it it can be all-consuming."

Those people may not feel they get much out of school.

But Johnson found many do have an untapped potential to become passionate about something.

"I also tried to de-mystify writing," Johnson adds.

"It's great to be published, but not everything I write is for publication and I try to encourage young people to write.

"They have said to me it makes sense of things which happen to them."

Search for identity

Johnson's novel weaves complex themes into a first person, diary-like style - the attraction of fascism, being disappointed by those you trust, unrequited love and dealing with an unplanned pregnancy.

And he gives expression to the vital role grandparents can play in families.

There is a considerable measure of teenage guilt and insecurity of identity but the focus is on adult politics and dealing with relationships.

When Charlie infiltrates a meeting of right-wing local people hoping to elect an independent MP, even he finds himself being swept along by the rhetoric for a moment, forcing him to question his values.

Every chapter seems to end with a new development, keeping the story moving.

And it is difficult not to wonder if Charlie does eventually get the girl.

But the most significant question to be resolved is how a teenage boy can forgive someone he loves and admires for what he sees as an unforgivable error of judgement.

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