(1) Did you have a good time old chap ?( This is asked with a frowning sort of look which says I know you can't tell me in front of the ladies!)
(2) By Jove! You are lucky to have seen a bit of the world at the country's expense!
(3) You are looking jolly fit, old chap, but then of course you fellows in the Services had all the good food!
(4) You were lucky to have missed the fly-bombs and rockets! (Now follows a discussion on fisherman lines as to the size and closeness of the missiles which affected the people in the room)...
This was the helpful advice and information offered in February 1946 by one of Picture Post's readers to servicemen newly returning home from demobilisation, and it may seem odd to launch into my November Remembrance reading with the homecoming, but this book has been irresistible. Demobbed - Coming Home After the Second World War by Alan Allport and published by Yale University Press has been wonderfully readable and informative though to me not a complete revelation for two reasons.
Firstly, the Tinker (father of dgr) of course because, though demobilisation came much later for him in1955, I had known it was a strange time and then whilst gathering together the little cameos he wrote for Bugle Boy, he put that sadness and fear into words for the first time in more than fifty years,
'In my hand a small cardboard attache case, eighteen inches by ten I suppose, and in it were all my worldly possessions. Looking back at the barracks I thought what have I got to show for sixteen years, all of World War Two and the Far East? I had one month's wages, one month's ration money and a single ticket to Exeter Central station and a letter in my pocket which said that if I didn't return my uniform within fourteen days, I would be charged for it...I am so pleased to know that everything is much better now. It surely needed to be.'
Secondly, through my teenage years in suburban Surrey, we had lived next door to an ex- Far East Prisoner of War, a veteran of the Burma railway. I have no idea how old he was but I can see him now; a broken man, destroyed in mind and body, thin, stooped and grey, a virtual recluse who rarely spoke to us but worshiped a little chihuahua dog. A man who would shuffle around in carpet slippers and who traveled nowhere, because the sight of a train made him incontinent with fear. Childless and with a wife whose bitterness seemed palpable towards him, towards us the happy family living next door and to the world at large, every minute of every day. Having presumably chosen to stick by him, who can know the hidden traumas of their life together?
So I came to Alan Allport's book with a few thoughts but certainly not the depth of knowledge that I now have, not only about the complete debacle that being demobbed involved...the Tinker laughed when I asked him about it...it was utter chaos he remembers it well, but so much more about the lives of men who had fought for King and country. For the Tinker like so many the war was not over on VE Day, there was the little problem of the war with Japan to be resolved and this, plus the ensuing logistical nightmare of bringing the troops home, is often lost in the post-war literature.
Many had left lowly employment in grocer's shops or banks and returned having gained vast experience in the theatre of war, commanding troops, perhaps displaying great heroism whilst witnessing sights they would wish to forget, only to find they were now complete misfits. Alan Allport delineates the sociological implications of a war clearly, many men now equipped with language and behaviours that they felt sure equipped them to rise through the social classes, only to find that no one was the least bit interested in them. Conversation peppered with 'old boy' and ' actually' and 'I say' and a demob payout, all sadly insufficient to allow the average man on Civvy Street to move to the houses at the top of the hill, and the streets below were most certainly not paved with goodwill and gratitude.
Britain was a 'land of nerves' and the anxieties were manifold, not only for the returning men but for the loved ones waiting for them at home who had suffered greatly too and Alan Allport covers all this accessibly whilst evidencing all his findings with fascinating anecdotes.
Appearances and mannerisms had changed, women had become independent and self-supporting both financially and often emotionally. Homelessness and unemployment were rife, bigamy and divorce were increasingly common, crime levels rose and there were real concerns that the war had allowed a slackening of moral fibre throughout the nation that would be difficult to rein back in. There was a flurry of stabbings, bludgeonings and strangulation of unfaithful wives by cuckolded husbands to whom judges then saw fit to hand down lenient sentences citing mitigating circumstances, whilst several chapters examine the psychological effects of combat and the lack of help available. Many World War Two veterans have only asked for that help in recent years, finding that very public anniversary memorials and film footage have allowed unwelcome memories, long buried, to surface
It was all a bit of a moral mess and Alan Allport covers it all in a very readable way, I suspect this was a book that could have been 500 pages long not the compact 250 it is and I sense there would have been difficult decisions about what to leave out.
There are some good references to fiction of the time that attempts to express some of those anxieties, A Wreath of Roses by the inimitable Elizabeth Taylor, The Chequer Board by Nevil Shute (now there's an author I have neglected for years) On the Side of the Angels by Betty Miller (my Virago copy has that gorgeous cover,) so plenty of reading trails to follow.
Alongside all this I have been dipping into another excellent book, Stranger in the House by Julie Summers. These women's stories of men returning from the second world war offer a unique and personal testimony and though I have yet to read it in depth I most certainly will because the chapter entitled Children of the Bamboo : The FEPOW Children's Tale makes for heartbreaking but very revealing reading and the book sits perfectly alongside Demobbed.
What has made Demobbed even more enjoyable for me has been the chance to sit down with my primary source and ask him about it all, but even without one of those of your own, this is a treasure of a book that will add something special to any wartime shelf. The Tinker remembers his unwearable demob suit, hat and demob underwear with that fondness born of the memory of hysterical laughter. The suit akin to a very stiff hair shirt and thrown at him across a counter by a man who looked him up and down and said 'You look like a medium to me'.