Song of the Week: Al Bowlly’s In Heaven

“Well, I gave my youth to king and country,
But what’s my country done for me
but sentenced me to misery.

I traded my helmet and my parachute
For a pair of crutches and a demob suit”

An unusual choice this week, since both the composition (1986) and the recording in the video (1999) below are relatively recent, well beyond Radio Days’ notional cut-off year of 1939.  But who could resist a song penned by Richard Thompson, recorded and performed by Norma Waterson (with Richard Thompson and Martin Carthy on guitar, Danny Thompson on double bass), that name-drops the 1930s heartthrob Al Bowlly?  In this the centenary of the end of the First World War, the song poignantly evokes the lot of the many servicemen who have fallen on hard times on returning to civilian life, whether (as in this song) following the Second World War1 or at the end of the First World War (read Simon Webb’s 1919, or Chanie Rosenberg’s 1919: Britain on the Brink of Revolution, for example) … or indeed in the present day.

The ‘demob’ suit

Thompson’s Al Bowlly’s In Heaven conjures a world that, for the narrator, not only no longer exists–the final days of an age that made some kind of sense, when “we were heroes” and “we used to dance the whole night through” to the songs of Al Bowlly–but which would never and could never exist again: the Luftwaffe parachute mine that detonated outside of Al Bowlly’s London flat at ten past three in the morning of 16th April 1941, killing the singer instantly, marked a definitive and irreparable fracture in time.  There could be no going back, no possible return to that seemingly golden age.  Better to have died, he suggests, than to have survived to live in this broken and meaningless time: “Al Bowlly’s in Heaven, and I’m in limbo”.  For now condemned to “Hostels and missions and dosser’s soup lines … St Mungo’s with its dirty old sheets”, the narrator’s only remaining refuge is to lose himself in recreating in his imagination a moment gone forever:

Well, I can see me now, I’m back there on the dance floor,
Oh, with a blonde on me arm, red-head to spare,
Spit on my shoes and shine in me hair.
And there’s Al Bowlly, he’s up on a stand.
Oh, that was a voice and that was a band.
Al Bowlly’s in heaven and I’m in limbo now

The song may be recent, but the theme–that of the returning soldier left poor, homeless, jobless, often maimed or disabled, and abandoned by the country he fought for–is timeless, exemplified in songs such as The Maunding Souldier, first published in 1629, through Hard Times of Old England (circa 1815?)2, to John Prine’s poignant Sam Stone (a.k.a. Great Society Conflict Veteran’s Blues, 1971).

From The Maunding Souldier

Good, your worship, cast your eyes
Upon a Souldier’s miseries …

I pray your worship, thinke on me,
That am what I doe seeme to be,
No rooking rascall, nor no cheat,
But a Souldier every way compleat;
I have wounds to show
That prove ’tis so

From Hard Times of Old England

Our soldiers and sailors have just come from war
They’re fighting for Queen and for country once more
Home to be starved, better stayed where they were

From Sam Stone

Sam Stone came home,
to the wife and family
after serving in the conflict overseas.
and the time that he served,
had shattered all his nerves,
and left a little shrapnel in his knees.
but the morphine eased the pain,
and the grass grew round his brain,
and gave him all the confidence he lacked,
with a purple heart and a monkey on his back.

… and from Al Bowlly’s in Heaven

Well I gave my youth to king and country
But what’s my country done for me but sentenced me to misery
I traded my helmet and my parachute
For a pair of crutches and a demob suit
Al Bowlly’s in heaven and I’m in limbo now
Hard times, hard hard times
Hostels and missions and dosser’s soup lines
Can’t close me eyes on a bench or a bed
For the sound of some battle raging in my head.

The full lyrics of Al Bowlly’s in Heaven may be found here:

Further reading

Allport, A. (2009). Demobbed: Coming Home After the Second World War. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Turner, B & Rennell, A. (1995). When Daddy Came Home: How Family Life Changed Forever in 1945. London: Hutchinson.

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  1. «By the end of 1945, demobilization was being described by one of the Labour Party’s own MPs as “the Achilles heel” of the Attlee government. “Thousands of us are becoming embittered and demoralized,” complained an RAF airman to the Daily Herald; other servicemen spoke of “disgust and rebellion” and how “bitter, frustrated, and completely disillusioned” they felt. Something had gone very badly wrong.» []
  2. “Throughout the early years of the nineteenth century, there were increasing numbers of beggars and vagrants on the city streets and country roads of Britain. Many of these were former soldiers. … in the years following the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, there were perhaps 350,000 vagrants, beggars and rough sleepers in England and Wales”, Simon Webb, 1919 []

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