- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 20, 2003

A SON OF WAR

By Melvyn Bragg

Arcade, $25.95, 426 pages

REVIEWED BY LORNA WILLIAMS



The name Melvyn Bragg may not be a household word this side of the Atlantic, but in Britain he’s been a fixture on television and radio for the past 30 years. His specialty is popularizing the arts through rambling interviews with writers, actors, and artists of many stripes. But writing books—fiction and non-fiction—is his passion and he’s published about 20 prior to “A Son of War,” the second volume of a semi-autobiographical trilogy about a boy growing up in post-World War II Britain.

Not much happens. The plot— such as it is — centers on Joe Richardson, his father Sam and his mother Ellen. In the first part of the trilogy, “The Soldier’s Return” Sam attempted the difficult adjustment to life after the war—in which he acquitted himself well—but found it impossible to talk about afterwards, even to Ellen. That novel ended with Sam, who had decided to make a fresh start in Australia, leaving wife and child behind.

In the current volume we follow Sam’s second readjustment to his hometown and Joe’s growing-up years from seven to 14. An only child, he is caught between two strong, loving parents: Sam, who wants to undo what he perceives as Ellen’s attempt to “lassify” their son during his wartime absence and her desire to offer Joe opportunities that she never had.

The opening chapters set the theme with Sam’s gift to Joe of boxing gloves and Ellen soon afterwards taking the boy for his first piano lesson. She pushes him to sing in the choir and to take tap-dancing lessons, but both Sam and Joe finally draw the line at tap dancing, even though Ellen cleverly invokes a favorite movie star, Fred Astaire.

Sam detests his job at the local paper factory and secretly wishes to be his own boss, a dream he realizes by becoming landlord of a local pub, the Blackamoor. Yearning to belong to something outside the family circle, Joe joins a neighborhood gang (pleasing dad) and the church choir (to please mom). Ellen longs for privacy, a wish that’s shattered when she and Joe take on the Blackamoor. Joe’s childhood fears lead up to what appears to be a mental breakdown, though this is never convincingly spelled out.

The novel is set in Melvyn Bragg’s home town of Wigton, Cumbria (he’s now Lord Bragg of Wigton) and certainly there is a lot of him in Joe. As a boy he had a nervous breakdown; his parents ran a local pub. This is a saga Bragg clearly wanted to write but which might have been more successful as memoir (Russell Baker’s “Growing Up”—better written, shorter, funnier—comes to mind) or as social history. The author is at his best in describing everyday life in the north of England in the dreary postwar years when food was scarce and housing hard to find. The details ring true.

Men keep their hands in their pockets in winter because they can’t afford to buy gloves. Even young people in their twenties wear false teeth, persuaded by the powers that be that dentures soon settled in and set you up for a life without toothache.

Food rationing continued for several years after the war’s end and Ellen knows that the meal she offers her husband after a day’s work—powdered eggs, two small slices of bacon, and fried bread—is meager. But Sam never complains, believing it is his fate (and Joe’s) to endure. “Enduring is what our lot have learned about for centuries … We became experts at it. We recognize it in ourselves and salute it in others. That is how we manage. Stray from the creed of enduring and you are in danger.”

In that tight little island surrounded by chill seas, the British also endure constant bad weather: “In the North of England we rush out and worship each measly ray of sunshine as if, secretly, we were Aztecs … In Wigton, the sun was rarer than a miracle—bound to happen once or twice a year, but no one knew when.”

The lives of Joe and his parents are chronicled in sometimes tedious detail but minor characters, particularly those flirting with the wrong side of the law, come off well. There’s turnip-stealer Speed, three years Joe’s senior, whose father, a casualty of the war, is in a mental hospital “but if anybody referred to it Speed hit them.” Joe worships bad boy Speed, who merely tolerates the youngest member of his gang. Heading up an adult gang is Sam’s friend Diddler, “kerchiefed around the neck, a horse trader and general dealer, a rogue rover, the leader of a pack bypassed by history, outside the mechanisms of society, harking back to days before the town itself was settled.”

Even Ellen, a model of propriety, chooses as her best friend not-quite-respectable Sadie, whose lean gypsy looks and marriage to a man who occasionally beats her make her an object of gossip. But she somehow transcends her mean existence. Teaching young Joe to dance, “Sadie twirled around the kitchen, cheap in her clothes, worn in appearance, barren in so many hopes, dancing like a movie star, healing the room, dancing as lightly as a drifting leaf.”

Tom Brokaw’s book about World War II, “The Greatest Generation” was a bestseller in the United States, but it’s questionable whether there’s a large audience for this very British novel populated with characters who believe that expressing deep feeling is a sign of weakness, and sprinkled with occasional puzzling English words like “scrunt,” “fittle,” and “passion killers” — these are serviceable rather than seductive “knickers” (panties). However, Melvyn Bragg’s trilogy is a classic coming-of-age story — with a third part just published in Britain—and as such perhaps it transcends time and distance.

P.S. Don’t be surprised if a dramatized version appears on “Masterpiece Theater.”

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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