London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

I was recently contacted by Tombola about an initiative they’ve got going with Loose Women (which they sponsor) where they’re asking various bloggers which book they’re most looking forward to in 2015 – and they’re bringing them together in a feature (which I’ll link to when it’s live).

Unsurprisingly, my first question was “do reprints count?” Because that’s where my heart lies, as you know. When they assured me it did, I picked London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes – which is being republished by Persephone Books in April, I believe. Here is (a very slightly adapted version of) what I wrote about it a while ago…

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 would do it an injustice to break it up at all – so I shall post the whole entry tomorrow.  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.
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 it’s being reprinted soon.

23 thoughts on “London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

  • March 2, 2015 at 7:09 pm
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    I've been really looking forward to this and you have just made me even keener. There have been a few (relatively) cheaper copies around recently – before it seemed to be rarely available and then at a high price – but I'm waiting for the Persephone one as they are such lovely books.

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    • March 3, 2015 at 10:35 pm
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      Are there really? Surprising, given how expensive it was before – maybe people are taking advantage of sales before they'll be priced out of the market!

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  • March 2, 2015 at 7:31 pm
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    Ah!! It's being reprinted – that makes me SO happy :)

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  • March 2, 2015 at 8:48 pm
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    I just recently picked up the Persephone edition of Goodbye Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes – I was lucky enough to find it here in Canada in a charity shop! So it seems a bit like fate to see a review of another of her books just a couple of days later. :)

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    • March 3, 2015 at 10:36 pm
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      Oo, well done! I haven't actually read that one, though I have read Minnie's Room, the other collection Persephone print. Her stories are good, but this book (and her novel One Fine Day) are even better.

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  • March 2, 2015 at 8:53 pm
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    Ooo, this one does sound good. I finally read Nella Last's War last fall and really enjoyed it. I shall add this one to my list.

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    • March 3, 2015 at 10:36 pm
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      They are both wonderful diaries! And deserve being read alongside each other, really.

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  • March 2, 2015 at 9:40 pm
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    These diaries sound like a must. I might put them on my birthday wishlist :)

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  • March 2, 2015 at 10:20 pm
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    Well said! Usually I'm disappointed when Persephone reissue a bok I own but this time I'm delighted because it so deserves a wider readership.

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    • March 3, 2015 at 10:39 pm
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      Very true! I hadn't thought of it like that, but this time I don't mind the money I spent on the older copy, because I want everyone to read this.

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    • March 3, 2015 at 10:39 pm
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      Yay! :D It may leap to my top three favourite Persephones on publication.

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  • March 3, 2015 at 7:19 am
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    Mollie Panter-Downes is one of my favourite writers and 'One Fine Day' possibly my favourite book of all time. If I weren't already looking forward to Persephone's edition of London War Notes, your wonderful post would have convinced me to buy it. I love such thoughts as the desire to go 'upstairs instead of down' – so simple a wish, but not one I would have realised was in people's minds at that time. Many thanks for a lovely insight into this reissue. Definitely a book to savour.

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    • March 3, 2015 at 10:39 pm
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      Isn't One Fine Day sublime? They are equally brilliant, albeit in very different ways.

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  • March 3, 2015 at 8:27 am
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    Oh, can't wait for this one to come out – thanks for letting us know. And does this mean you're going to be on "Loose Women"? it always seems to be on when I'm in the gym – if you pop up on it as I cycle to nowhere busily, that will be a surprise!

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    • March 3, 2015 at 10:40 pm
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      Haha! It does not… it means I shall be linked to on a site somewhere else :)

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  • March 3, 2015 at 6:48 pm
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    This is one I've been keen to read since your review of it, Simon, so I'm *so* glad Persephone are reissuing it! Look forward to seeing you on TV, then? :)

    kaggsysbookishramblings

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  • March 4, 2015 at 4:19 pm
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    This has been on my Wish List since you first mentioned the book, so I'm looking forward to reading the Persephone edition. And I'm glad Mollie Panter-Downes mentions the men who were conscripted to the mines – I have an uncle who was a 'Bevin Boy', but he was invalided out.

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  • March 5, 2015 at 7:17 pm
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    Oh what good news – thanks so much for flagging it. I read your first write up and immediately put it on my 'to buy' list. And now I'm particularly glad I haven't yet found a copy. What better than a Persephone version!? Faye

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  • March 15, 2015 at 4:28 am
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    Oh, so exciting about London War Notes. I had to return my ('my') copy to the library before I'd finished it but not before I was totally hooked…!

    Reply

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