Turning its focus to post-war England and the shape of things to come, this ‘sequel’ to Mr Bunting Goes to War (1941) retains traces of the wry humour which marked its predecessor, but the shift to a new milieu soon becomes clear. Opening in the immediate aftermath of the war, this novel picks up where the previous one left off, and as Bunting and family begin to realise, the peace itself has inevitably brought a series of ‘unexpected complications’. Greenwood records with some pathos the struggle of his erstwhile protagonist to adjust to losing the sense of purpose and opportunity for heroism that the war had afforded him. For the Buntings – as for millions of others – the task of winning the war is now superseded by that of winning the peace; the slow realisation that the victory over Nazism was only really half the battle. Bunting himself, finally forced into retirement from the ironmongery trade by the return of the younger colleague whom he had stepped in to replace, is by stages disabused of those notions of the ‘promised land’ for which he had imagined himself to be fighting. Indeed, there are moments when his disillusion is permitted to spill over into an outright and more general pessimism:
Long ago had died the out of his mind, out of everybody’s mind, the simple hope that victory would put everything right and that when Hitler was destroyed the day of universal brotherhood would dawn at last.
Meanwhile, now familiar debates of welfare vs. laissez-faire are staged between Bunting’s son, Ernest, now returned from the war, and his father. While Ernest sees grounds for tentative optimism, glimpsing a post-war world in which ‘the State recognised its obligations’, his father is predictably sceptical of the Beveridge report and its perceived implications (‘Lot of rot! Encouraging people to rely on the Government instead of on themselves. Making us into a coddled nation!’). Having little patience with his son’s attempts to cling on to his individuality and attendant values (despite his own long-forgotten battle to do the same), Bunting unwisely and unfairly pressures Ernest to jettison his ideals and instead follow the example of his soon-to-be son-in-law, the philistinic garage mechanic and aspiring ‘businessman’ Bert Rollo.
As the novel progresses, however, the openly ideological disputes are submerged beneath the interrelated business and familial tussles in which the Buntings soon find themselves unwittingly engaged. Both father and son find that the hoped-for pay-off of their war-time travails is dismayingly elusive, and much of the latter part of the novel is concerned with the processes of compromise and readjustment undergone by each. Bunting, having once looked forward to a retirement in which he might be able to cultivate his nobler aspirations (his interest in ‘po’try’ being among these – ‘…as the poet said’ being a key catchphrase), instead becomes embroiled in the rescue of Bert’s loss-making garage business (the ‘Snappy Service’), while Ernest abandons his accountancy training to take charge of the floundering laundry business in which his father has invested the last of his savings. In the end, such resolution as there is occurs not in the public realm but rather in the shape of Julie Bunting’s engagement to Bert.
Whilst Greenwood’s novel clearly gives a sense of the problems facing many ordinary men and women in the immediate post-war period, there are occasions where the tone seems needlessly dreary, with the sense that the stream of difficulties and disappointments – some major; others less so – might have been animated to better effect by the ironic humour at which Greenwood elsewhere proves himself adept. Yet the mood does recover by the end of the novel, with all parties now both a little older and (possibly) wiser. It is Mrs Bunting (who generally receives short shrift throughout) who is allowed the last word:
‘There’s a lot of things you feel and think that you can’t put into words,’ observed Mr Bunting, breaking silence.
‘I shouldn’t try, dear,’ she answered, warning him against effort that would certainly bring on a headache […] ‘maybe that’s what your old poets are for…’