London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

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Reviewed by Simon

There are plenty of books about World War Two.  There are even plenty of diaries, and some – like Nella Last’s or Mathilde Wolff-Mönckeberg’s – are exceptionally good.  But these sorts of diaries are, inevitably, extremely personal.  There is plenty of detail about the war, but primarily they record one person’s response to the war – and any private emotions they are experiencing, relating to their marriage, children, or any other aspect of their lives.  Mollie Panter-Downes’ objective is different – she is documenting the war experience for all of London.  (It is emphatically just London; she often refers to ‘the British’, but the rest of the country can more or less go hang, as far as she is concerned.)

Panter-Downes wrote these ‘notes’ for the New Yorker, but it is impressively difficult to tell this from the columns.  Even at the stages of the war where America was umming and aahing about fighting, she observes British feelings on the topic (essentially: ‘yes please, and get on with it’) as though relating them to her next-door neighbour, rather than the country in question.  And, of course, Americans and Britons are two nations divided by a single language, as George Bernard Shaw (neither American nor British) once said.  This gives Mollie Panter-Downes the perfect ‘voice’ for a book which has stood the test of time.  Her audience will be aware of major events in the war, but the minutiae of everyday life – and London’s response to the incremental developments of war – are related with the anthropologist’s detail, to a sympathetic but alien readership.

And nobody could have judged the balance of these columns better than Panter-Downes.  The extraordinary writing she demonstrates in her fiction (her perfect novel One Fine Day, for instance) is equally on show here.  She offers facts and relates the comments of others, but she also calmly speaks of heroism and bravado, looks at humour and flippancy with an amused eye, and can be brought to moving heights of admiration.  The column she writes in response to D Day is astonishing, and it seems an injustice to break it up. This, to give you a taste, is how she describes the fall of France – or, rather, the reaction to this tragic news, in Britain:

June 22nd 1940: On Monday, June 17th – the tragic day on which Britain lost the ally with whom she had expected to fight to the bitter ed – London was as quiet as a village.  You could ave heard a pin drop in the curious, watchful hush.  A places where normally there is a noisy bustle of comings and goings, such as the big railway stations, there was the same extraordinary, preoccupied silence.  People stood about reading the papers; when a man finished one, he would hand it over to anybody who hadn’t been lucky enough to get a copy, and walk soberly away.

For once the cheerful cockney comeback of the average Londoner simply wasn’t there. The boy who sold you the fateful paper did it in silence; the bus conductor punched your ticket in silence. The public seemed to react to the staggering news like people in a dream, who go through the most fantastic actions without a sound. There was little discussion of events, because they were too bad for that. With the house next door well ablaze and the flames coming closer, it was no time to discuss who or what was the cause and whether more valuables couldn’t have been saved from the conflagration.

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I’ve read quite a lot of books from the war, both fact and fiction, and have studied the period quite a bit, but there were still plenty of things I didn’t know.  I hadn’t realised, for instance, that boys were conscripted into mines at random, or that German planes dropped lots of bits of silvery paper (which children then collected) to disrupt radar equipment, or that in 1940 all foreigners in Britain – including the recently-invaded French – were banned from having cars, bicycles, or cameras.  More significantly, I had never got my head around the order in which things happened during the war.  I mean, I knew vaguely when various invasions happened, when America entered the war, when D-Day took place – but London War Notes offers a fortnight-by-fortnight outlook on the war.  We can see just which rations were in place, which fears were uppermost, and how public opinion shifted – particularly the public opinion concerning Winston Churchill.  Films made retrospectively tend to show him as much-adored war hero throughout, but London War Notes demonstrates how changeable people were regarding him and his policies – although there was a lot more approval for various politicians than is imaginable in Britain today, where they are all largely regarded as more or less scoundrels.  (Can you think of a politician with a very good general public approval? I can’t.)  This is why I think the book is essential for anyone writing about life in England (or perhaps just London) during the war – Panter-Downes gives such an insight into the changing lives and conditions.  It also made me think about things from a perspective I hadn’t previously.  I’d never really appreciated how devastating tiredness could be to a nation.

Sept. 29th 1940: Adjusting daily life to the disruption of nightly raids is naturally what Londoners are thinking and talking most about. For people with jobs to hold down, loss of sleep continues to be as menacing as bombs.  Those with enough money get away to the country on weekends and treat themselves to the luxury of a couple of nine-hour stretches. (‘Fancy,’ said one of these weekenders dreamily, ‘going upstairs to bed instead of down.’)  It is for the alleviation of the distress of the millions who can’t afford to do anything but stay patiently put that the government has announced the distribution of free rubber earplugs to deaden the really appalling racket of the barrages.

One of the keynotes of London War Notes is Panter-Downes’ admiration for the resilience and good-humour of the British people during war.  I’d always assumed this was something of a war film propaganda myth, but since Panter-Downes is more than happy to note when people grumble and complain, then I believe the more frequent reports of cheeriness and determination.  And, lest you think London War Notes is unremittingly bleak or wearyingly emotional, I should emphasise that Panter-Downes is often very amusing and wry.  An example, you ask?  Why, certainly:

Jan. 31st 1942: The Food Ministry has been flooded with letters, including one supposedly from a kitten, who plaintively announced that he caught mice for the government and hoped Lord Woolton would see his way clear to allowing him his little saucerful.  In the country, the milk shortage has brought about a boom in goats, which appeal to people who haven’t got the space or the nerve necessary to tackle a cow but who trustingly imagine that a goat is a handy sort of animal which keeps the lawn neat and practically milks itself.

London War Notes isn’t a book to speed-read, but to luxuriate in, and pace out. I can’t imagine a more useful, entertaining, moving, and thorough guide to the war, beautifully finding a middle path between objectivity and subjectivity. Thank goodness for Persephone reprinting this gem.

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Revised from Simon’s blog post. Simon is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Mollie Panter-Downes, London War Notes (Persephone Books: London,  2015), 978-1910263013, 430pp., , paperback.

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