One of our neighbours (and occasional visitor here too!) had a clear-out of books recently and amongst those that found their way down the hill to the Hideous-house, was this one, "The Soldier's Return" by Melvyn Bragg. My forays into fiction are comparatively rare, and I picked this up one rainy afternoon - having read some of Bragg's non-fiction, intrigued as to whether he could 'do' stories as well as history and ideas.
The book concerns the post-conflict experiences of Sam, a 1946 returnee from the Burma campaign and is set in Bragg's home-area of Wigtown, details and history of which he clearly delights in weaving as a backdrop to the nicely drawn characters he introduces. Bragg is presumably old enough to remember soldiers returning to Cumbria, and it seems likely that such childhood impressions fuelled his imagination here.
When Sam returns to his family he finds himself alienated and lost. His wife and son have forged a closeness and bond in his absence that threatens him; his reintegration into civilian life is problematic and he both misses and loathes the camaraderie and horror of conflict. He is haunted by the battlefield experience, something about which he is unable to speak to those who did not go through it. The story concerns the troubled demobilisation of this soldier, and his family. As such the book is driven not by narrative but by his state of mind. Simply but compellingly told its a good read - worth reading, but not really the 'masterpiece' the jacket describes.
One thing that concerned me throughout the book, (well perhaps until the final twist!) was the lingering suggestion that such excruciating post-war readjustments were being portrayed as the norm - and written in the comparatively peaceful 1990s how we imagine it should have been back then. What surprised me was the way in which real veterans of WWII spoke so fondly of their return, in comparison with the traumas of Bragg's novel. In the book three soldier's are spoken of, Sam (his struggle to re-integrate), Ian (who is killed in battle and his family left to cope) and Jackie (who has a complete nervous breakdown).
My Grandfather, like Bragg's character, must have experienced some similar emotions and transitions. In the photo above, taken during home-leave in WWII, he is pictured with my Grandma in Walworth, E. London, surrounded by buildings which are bomb-damaged. It was taken immediately prior to his return to the European conflict, where as a member of the Pioneer Corps of the Royal Engineers, he was engaged in such things as bridging the Rhine for advancing allied forces. Perhaps by the time he told me about the war, forty years of healing had taken place, and maybe we can picture Bragg's character eventually chatting to his grand-children in similar ways. Maybe though, not everyone was as damaged by the experience as all the characters that Bragg draws.
I was musing these very questions in Ullapool last week. Also staying in the Youth Hostel there was a soldier on home leave from 'a conflict zone' (I guess Afghanistan, maybe Iraq). Clearly tense, jumpy, nervous and bursting with an excess of adrenaline, he described landing back in the UK less than 24 hours before, hiring a car and disappearing into the Highlands to fish for a week - in order to calm down before he could cope with his family. He hinted darkly that he was still so 'high' from battle that he couldn't trust himself around naughty children. His regime for three weeks of leave was a week in isolation 'de-toxing' from conflict, a week with the family and then a week with the troops re-psyching himself up for the tension of war. "Three weeks isn't long enough to come-down" he said, "you never really come down in three weeks, if you did - you'd never be able to go back."
It was this conversation with the squaddie three days after I finished the book - that made me realise that it is a better book than I gave it credit for while reading.