When Johnnie came marching home
When Daddy Came Home Barry Turner & Tony Rennell Hutchinson £16.99
Prolific writer and commentator John Walsh contributes columns to the paper as well as writing features, interviews and restaurant reviews. He has been editor of The Independent Magazine, literary editor of the Sunday Times and features editor of the London Evening Standard.
Saturday 06 May 1995
Take this bewildering moment of social history, multiply it by the 4,337,100 British servicemen who were demobilised between June 1945 and January 1947, and you have a picture of the British Isles in those 18 months as a land of disorientation, a nation of joltedmisfits struggling to put their lives back in order. Not all, of course, were returning to wives and children after six years of war; but for the purposes of this compilation of reminiscences, it's as if every dwelling in the land held a household from Noel Coward's film In Which We Serve, ready to spring into appropriate action when confronted by returning soldiery.
A strange homogeneity of props and behaviour prevails: everyone seems to remember the photograph of the warrior on the sideboard, kissed by the children every night, the whiskery face, the scent of the carved ornaments brought from India or Egypt, the shock of one's mother's bed being usurped by a hairy stranger, the half-crown bribe to make you disappear to the cinema, the tropical disease, the insistence on silence. . .
Childish misunderstandings are everywhere (one little girl, having seen photographs of her father only from the waist up, exclaimed, on seeing him, "But he's got legs!") along with less amusing developments, like the time Muriel Woodhead's family blew her father's demob pay on a disastrous holiday, in which a colossal electric storm so reminded her of the Blitz it rendered her catatonic with shock.
Whether you are touched by this sob 'n' smile stuff depends on the hardness of your heart. I confess to feeling at moments I might drown in gloopy sentiment, and at others (as when reading a Major Cohen's letter to his two-year-old daughter Suzette) unable to see for tears. But luckily, Turner and Rennell's ambitions extend beyond a wallow in family claspings and sunderings. Their trawl through the memories of hundreds of ex-service people and their families allows them to explore the broader arena of demobilisation, from the journey home and the standard-issue suits and shoes, to the struggle for employment, the food and housing shortages, the general air of appalled disillusion, as newly anachronistic ex-serviceman found that life after the guns and shredded companions and POW camps was tedious and petrifyingly ordinary: "Coming out of the Forces into civilian life is rather like plunging into a tepid bath," warned a popular demob guide. The authors rightly focus attention on the investigations of one Lt-Col T.F. Main, a psychiatric adviser to the Director of Military Training, who became shrink-in-chief to the demob world. Main's case histories - of, for instance, a 25-year-old Middle East veteran unable to order a drink in a bar or converse with any women other than whores - make riveting reading and put in perspective the well-meaning efforts of the "Resettlement Service" to button the stroppy, misunderstood vets into the tawdry fitments of normality.
The book's Babel of confessions put flesh on bare statistics: on the extraordinary rise in divorce, emigration (to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa), and doomed government enterprise and training schemes in the months just after the War. Especially fascinating is a chapter on the role it was thought appropriate for women to play. It was assumed that both the female military and their non-combatant sisters would happily slip back into being home-makers. Instead, a tough independence supervened among those who had spent years arranging evacuations for their children and fiddling the ration books; and a curious helplessness arose among the ex-uniforms who'd for years had everything provided for them. "I HAVE GOT TO THINK FOR MYSELF NOW" one ex-Waaf remembers reminding herself. It's just one of many paradoxes of the post-war period that this vox pop survey explores, a bitter shell to surround the fondant, Daddy's-home sentimentality.
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