Greenwood’s irony-laden tale of the ‘little man’ in time of war (and successor to the well-received Mr Bunting (1940)) shows clear shades of the likes of Mr Pickwick and The Diary of a Nobody’s hapless protagonist, Charles Pooter. Here, however, the backdrop is altogether more ominous, as this distinguished literary-comic lineage is transposed to the context of the London blitz:
All the warnings of past years, all the unheeded prophecies, were now the facts of the moment, a nightmare made true and visible. Through it all strode Mr Bunting, to do business in ironmongery, one of the million little men Hitler failed to understand, his chief emotion a resolute, slow anger as of one who marks the tally against the day of retribution.
So emerges lower middle-class hero George Bunting, defying the Luftwaffe and distrusting the neighbours in equal measure. In terms of the ‘little man’ theme, more recent parallels might be drawn with Orwell’s portly insurance salesman, George Bowling in Coming up for Air (though the prophetic insight granted the latter is rather less in evidence here). In Greenwood’s novel, however, the eponymous hero – veteran of Brockley’s hardware shop, is portrayed with both humour and warmth, so that while readers are frequently invited to smile at his numerous foibles, he is clearly to be regarded much more with sympathy than contempt. Thus, as Greenwood informs us:
He was not brilliant, nor heroic, but there was one thing he could do – endure. He could stick it out right to the end. It was the one thing he was good at, and it happened to be almost his sole duty.
Thus lies the basis of Mr Bunting’s heroism, such as it is. Certainly his bowler-hatted defiance is as admirable as it is amusing, as is his unshakable belief in the Victorian virtues of ‘guts and determination’ (‘A war was like all other things, he told them; to win you’d got to put your back into it’). Buoyed up by his battlefield promotion at Brockley’s (he is put in temporary charge of the ironmongery department, a role he predictably embraces with relish), Mr Bunting assumes the mantle of the common-man unfalteringly holding out against German imperial might (‘A queer lot the Germans, he thought. Couldn’t stay in their own country’).
The task of supplying the foil to Mr Bunting’s singular patriotism falls to his elder son, the idealistic ‘thinker’ (and possibly aptly named) Ernest, who, much to the chagrin of his father, dares to cast doubt on the efficacy of the war effort:
The trouble with most people, Ernest considered, was that they didn’t think. They accepted a war as though it were a natural catastrophe, like an earthquake, not the result of human blundering, like a railway accident. They devoted themselves to national service in war-time with a courage and devotion one rarely saw displayed in time of peace. They made sacrifices which, rightly directed, would have ushered in a golden age.
Of course, it’s hard to deny that Ernest may well have a point, though the pro-Hitler sympathies which occasionally attend such thoughts warn us off accepting him as the novel’s real moral centre; indeed there are points at which he arguably risks emerging as a more contemptible (and no less deluded) figure than his father. Meanwhile, comedy mingles with tragedy when younger son Chris is killed in action; now an interlude of personal grief usurps the intermittent Pooter-ish buffoonery, reminding readers that Mr Bunting’s world is far from mere comedic fantasy. The period of mourning is swiftly halted, however, when an incendiary bomb landing on the roof of a neighbour’s house affords Mr Bunting the long-awaited opportunity to ‘prove himself’ (reflecting a frustrated desire for action which marks much home front fiction). In the event, (and in true-style) the experience of extinguishing the bomb whilst held only by the ankles by the ageing resident colonel proves ‘not so much heroic as awkward and uncomfortable’. Yet for Mr Bunting the episode supplies the long-envisaged moment of reckoning he craves: ‘At last he was really in the war’.