Books - Exmouth 1
This group meets on the Second Tuesday of the month.
Melvyn Bragg, the author of The Soldier’s Return, is a broadcaster as well as an author. He was born and brought up in Wigton, the setting for what is, in reality, an autobiographical novel. Although a relatively small community, there is a broad cast of characters in the novel. Each chapter covers a series of events and is often divided into sections that concentrate on one of the characters. There are three central characters are a family – Sam, Ellen, his wife and Joe, their son. Sam is the soldier whom we first meet as he returns from fighting in Burma. We soon realise that he has become used to being in command and this creates a tension between him and Ellen, who has worked for much of the War and lives with Joe in her aunt Grace’s house. Joe has not seen his father for years and is dependent on his mother.
Melvyn Bragg is able to demonstrate effectively the development of emotions in a family affected by a sudden change in circumstances. Sam finds that the joy of return is soon replaced by the reality of finding that his role in life has changed. Life itself is also more complicated, no longer being a matter of leading men against an enemy, however hazardous and terrifying that may have been. Life now appears without purpose, which is emphasised by the apparent lack of opportunity in post-war England. Ellen is torn between wishing to maintain her independence and what she sees as fulfilling her duties as a wife. She reluctantly agrees to the move to Water Street, a down-at-heel area, because Sam is so keen for them to move into a place of their own rather than as lodgers with Aunt Grace. Joe finds the change in circumstances unnerving and clings more to his mother. He seems less disturbed by the move to Water Street than Ellen, apart from bullying by Speed and his gang, who call him a ‘mammy’s boy’. This view of Joe is shared by Sam for a time. Joe starts to try and ‘man up’ and he and Speed eventually form a connection.
The War forms a constant background to Sam’s life, which also affects Ellen and Joe since he tends to wake with nightmares, and through its indirect effect on his behaviour. Jackie, who was part of Sam’s platoon, has a complete breakdown. Sam attends a reunion in Carlisle and meets Alex, who convinces him that Australia is the place to go for opportunities. Ellen refuses to go with him, being afraid to leave the security of home. There are sections in the book that take us back to Burma and events there. One particular occurrence is hinted at early in the book as the returning soldiers are crossing a field and Sam .. grabbed a strand of barbed wire .. (that) .. jabbed into his palm. A terrible image disrupted his mind .. Further allusions are made, such as to Leonard who was trying to write a history about the Burma campaign, when Sam says when you saw what I saw, what the Japs did, when you saw that. There is a gradual and effective unveiling until, towards the end of the book, this horrific episode is revealed.
Everyone enjoyed The Soldier’s Return and recognised features of early post-war English social attitudes that were well described, though some were disappointed in the ending where Sam leaves the train starting him on the journey to Australia. The reason, as well as his love for Ellen, lay in Diddler’s remark – (t)he trouble is, Sam, as my old Da used to say, wherever you go, you take yourself with you.
April – Rough Music by Patrick Gale
May – London Rules by Mick Herron
June – When I lived in Modern Times by Linda Grant