Features Walthamstow

Review: Men at War by Luke Turner

David O’Driscoll reviews a book with an alternative angle for soldiers in the Second World War

Men at War, published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson

As a boy growing up in the 1970s, I loved everything about the Second World War. I mean, didn’t all boys? Popular culture at the time was full of references to it. War was in the boys’ comics I read, the films I watched (Battle of Britain being a particular favourite), and the television I enjoyed (Dad’s Army).

Yet, as I grew older, so did my anxieties about the nuclear age, and how the mythology of war was and is used in this country to promote nationalism, like during the Brexit debacle.

But the war still holds a fascination, and now a Walthamstow writer has captured this moment in an extraordinary new book; Men at War: Loving, Lusting, Fighting, Remembering, 1939–1945 which has just been released in paperback.

Turner explores this country’s obsession with the ‘good war’, through exhaustive research, historical records, literature from the period and encounters with veterans. Turner writes: “It can often feel as if Britain is stuck in some perpetual, childlike, simplistic obsession with the war that has prevented it from growing up and living in the present.”

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The book is full of surprising facts, like that parts of the famous de Havilland Mosquito war plane were made by Walthamstow furniture-maker Wrighton and Sons. But for me, its historical exploration of masculinity and sexuality during the war was the most eye-opening part.

Turner writes that the war allowed men to explore their sexuality in a surprisingly open way; while it was illegal to be gay at the time, there was a certain permissiveness during the period, he says.

In an energetic section about male sexual fluidity during the war, Turner convincingly opines that this moment represented an actual sexual revolution, not the 1960s as is so often portrayed.

With Men at War, Luke Turner has written an engaging and surprising account that is part self-examination and a reframing of this historical moment.

‘Men at War: Loving, Lusting, Fighting, Remembering 1939 -1945’ was published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson and is available at all good book shops

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