This novel (whose author is perhaps better known as the author of the slightly earlier ‘Mr Bunting’ novels) centres on the work of a voluntary ambulance squad during the London blitz. The novel depicts the personal struggles and internal tensions within the squad and its individual members, with the implicit (though not entirely persuasive) sense that we are being offered wartime society, as it were, in microcosm. Certainly this is a book which is of interest not least in its depictions of the kinds of (often harrowing) experience this work entailed, and the physical and psychological fortitude, in which certain characters are occasionally found wanting, required to overcome it: indeed the ‘all in it together’ motif (which has enjoyed an unfortunate resurgence in recent years) is by turns invoked and undermined as the novel progresses.
The squad itself comprises four members: the twenty year-old aspiring dancer Jenny Dadds; Charlie Lawson, an embittered working-class socialist; Lawson’s ‘no-nonsense’ employer and nemesis, the small-time businessman, Bill Battersby, and Brownie, the ‘sensitive’ – an architect with intellectual pretensions, who functions as the mouthpiece for many of the novel’s more meditative passages. In terms of the plot, much of the focus shifts between Lawson’s struggles to overcome his social and financial foibles, and to a lesser extent the ‘will-they/won’t they’ prospective romance between Brownie and Jenny. It must be said that Lawson himself is perhaps the least appealing of the characters. At the same time, however, we do learn rather more about him than anyone else, with a good deal of space given over to the perspective of the ‘little man’ whom he is essentially brought to represent – in particular his half-hearted attempt to escape and make a clean slate for himself when, following a direct hit on his home, he is taken for dead, and subsequent decision to re-join the squad at the end and thereby ‘redeem’ himself.
While much of the focus is on the nitty-gritty of ordinary life, there are also a number of more reflective asides which seek to give a more bird’s eye view of events: many of these are courtesy of Brownie, who is simultaneously cast in the role of seer and (at times) deluded idealist:
In the ugly façade of Bermondsey he saw a thousand mistakes which must never be made again. Now the façade was down, and behind it were displayed something which Brownie, with his architectural preoccupation, had rarely thought about – the homes of men. Tiny rooms of shoddy furniture heaped with the laths and plaster of the ceiling, ragged bed-clothes, pictures precariously hanging to a wall the whole made in the grimmest sense a cross-section of back-street life […] Yet all around him, amidst desolation and devastation, the human spirit shone bravely as a flower springing in the midst of desolation.
Both Brownie and Lawson are primed as the characters who, in their respective ways, are most likely to ‘learn something’ from their time in the squad, and in both cases there are tentative steps towards a more rounded world-view, less fettered by private blinkeredness on the one hand, and idealistic detachment on the other. Trite though this may sound it does help to convey a real sense of the solidarity across classes and communities engendered by the war effort, and of the prejudices and difficulties which had to be overcome in order for this to be achieved. This is not to say that the novel’s ‘message‘, such as it is, is allowed to take precedence over its readability. Aside from the concern to offer a vivid snapshot of London at war, the novel is also successful in creating a three-dimensional world populated by characters whose lives we feel able to care about.