When Johnnie came marching home

When Daddy Came Home Barry Turner & Tony Rennell Hutchinson £16.99

"There was a second knock; then a third. I opened the door and there stood a tall man with a moustache. I was immediately suspicious. I only knew of two men who had a moustache, Hitler and Charlie Chaplin. I had been told that Hitler was dead, and I knew the man in front of me wasn't Charlie Chaplin . . . My mother looked at my astonishment and said, "don't y'know 'oo it is?' "No," I replied. "It's y'daddy". I looked at him again; he looked at me. He asked me when I'd last cleaned my teeth. . ."

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Loading individual letters on to an original Heidelberg printing press
Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'