Mr Bunting At War by Robert Greenwood
This book is a classic of life on the Home Front in the early Second World War, a book dominated by the person of one Mr Bunting. Originally published in 1941, it has the immediacy of an account written without the benefit of hindsight, the knowledge of what happened later. It has now been reprinted by the Imperial War Museum in their Wartime Classics series, and made available as history written with a vivid flair. Not that its central character, Mr Bunting, is much given to dramatic impulses and spontaneous outbursts; he is a man of steady habits, thoughtful actions and being content with the small elements of his modest, regular family life. The author, Robert Greenwood, had already introduced Mr Bunting and his family in a novel in 1940, but in this book he appears fully formed and set in his ways. He is now confronted by the emerging realities of War, a very different conflict from the First World War of which he had experience; it soon becomes apparent that this is a fight which may well affect life at home in a totally different way from the previous battles. The book is written from the point of view of Mr Bunting, not in his exact voice, but revealing the frustrations, the satisfactions and the small issues that dominate his life. Being written at the time, this novel has all the tiny details of life, the difficulties of shortages of essentials like petrol, the rising prices of tobacco, the damage that was done to buildings and so much more. It is a fascinating account of social history, but also an intense character study written with a novelist’s sure skill. I found it a powerful, intense and sometimes moving novel, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.
From the start of the book Mr Bunting is seen as, to use his daughter’s word, a “Fusspot”. He has suffered a setback in his job which he has embarked on as an office boy so many decades before, now with the onset of War he is restored to his accustomed environment of the ironmongery department of Brockleys, a well respected establishment in the city of London. He lives in the more peaceful setting of Kilworth, specifically in a comfortable house called Laburnum Villa. His wife Mary looks after the house and is a devoted mother to their now adult children, Ernest, Chris and Julie. She cooks and cleans to a high standard, but there are still the little annoying details that makes Mr Bunting despair of his offspring. He is at first depicted as checking the family’s shoes for the repairs that would extend their life, not from motives of financial fear but the simple sensible considered way of life that he finds essential. He has been a generous father in some ways; he has invested in the laundry that Ernest runs, and put up financial support for the garage where Chris works. He is also concerned with Julie’s well being, keen that she gets a suitable job until she marries.
Mr Bunting’s family tolerates his obsessions, not surprised at his sometimes pompous pronouncements, accepting his strictures on the gas masks which come to symbolise his almost academic interest in the War. At this stage the War is being fought elsewhere, a subject for newspaper speculation and consideration. The family are not immediately overly concerned, Mr Bunting may have some concerns but this is the time before air raids, before mass conscription, when War seemed distant. Ernest is a deep thinker, a keen musician who plays the piano with an artistry his father cannot understand, a quiet man of peace. Chris has always been entranced by engines, as expressed in his work on motor vehicles. Recently he has become fascinated by aviation, consuming magazines concerning recent developments, and the descriptions of his interest begin to link in with his possible war effort. Julie is a bright young woman who has the technique of “handling “ her father even at his most fussy. The book gives touching accounts of family scenes which Mr Bunting sometimes finds frustrating, when perhaps his wisdom is not well received, when his observations seem to clash with the realities of what is actually happening. The creeping concerns of the War, when the siren first sounds, when the news tends towards defeats coming closer, when a family friend, Bert, joins a tank unit and is subtly changed by his experiences.
This is a carefully written book, full of the small details of life, the concerns of an ordinary man. Perhaps Mr Bunting is shown as an over-precise, demanding man, difficult to warm to and not a dignified or exciting hero. As the book proceeds, and the challenges of war come literally closer to home, he becomes dignified in how he copes, resilient in his reactions, and a man who excites genuine admiration. I recommend this as an exceptional account of life in an exciting period of history, given a relatable human face in a context of real life, and perhaps the more heroic as a result.