London War Notes – Mollie Panter-Downes

I’ve already teased you with one excerpt from Mollie Panter-Downes’ London War Notes 1939-1945 (collected together in 1972) and now I’m going to do a terrible thing.  I’m going to tell you how wonderful this book is.  I’m going to throw around the word ‘essential’.  And… it’s pretty much impossible to buy, unless you have a fair bit of money to spend.  I don’t even have a copy myself, mine’s from the library in Oxford.  But someone (are you listening?) needs to reprint this.  It’s the most useful book about the war that I’ve ever read.

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.  Tricky, when it is borrowed from the library – which I’m afraid you’ll probably have to do, unless someone decides to republish it.  I can’t imagine a more useful, entertaining, moving, and thorough guide to the war, beautifully finding a middle path between objectivity and subjectivity.  One day I will own my own copy.  For now, I’m grateful to Oxford libraries for keeping something like this in their store.

And come back tomorrow for that whole entry about D-Day.  Bring tissues.

31 thoughts on “London War Notes – Mollie Panter-Downes

  • March 4, 2013 at 2:05 am
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    I had to get a copy through inter-library loan, and then they demanded it back before I was half-way through. I found an expensive but not outrageous copy on the internet, but it was still too much. Like you, I can't believe this hasn't been re-printed. It would seem a natural for the NYRB line.

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:06 pm
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      That's a good point, I hadn't thought about NYRB – I might email them and try to persuade them… it does seem scandalous that it's out of print, AND so difficult to buy. I reckon that's because people with copies never give them up…

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  • March 4, 2013 at 2:06 am
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    Argh! I so want this book! My library doesn't have it. I've read One Fine Day and her short stories. I wish Persephone would take this on. Maybe they'll listen to your plea. Great review, by the way! Way to make me jealous.

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:06 pm
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      Thanks Shannon! How I wish I owned this… in its own way, it's pretty much as perfect as One Fine Day.

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  • March 4, 2013 at 3:24 am
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    I'm sure if it's hard to track down over there, that it will be near impossible to find here, so I will add my voice to the plea for someone to reprint it.

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:07 pm
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      Yes! Well, actually, I think it might have been published in the US, so you might have more luck your side of the Pond.

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  • March 4, 2013 at 4:38 am
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    I am so glad you were able to get your hands on this! To call it "essential" is certainly not an exaggeration. But yes, someone needs to reprint it NOW so that we can have our own copies!!!

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:08 pm
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      Thanks for chivvying me along to read it, Claire! I'm glad you did, and that I didn't let this languish in Oxford library. But, yes, SOMEONE needs to reprint it, asap.

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  • March 4, 2013 at 5:21 am
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    The New York Society Library, which has a membership fee and all are welcome to join, has two copies in its stacks. Americans who have access to university libraries may also be able to find this brilliant work available through such collections.

    Yes, Simon, to everything you said.

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:08 pm
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      Thanks Ellen! I'm glad that, although it's more or less impossible to buy at a reasonable price, there are many ways and means of reading copies…

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  • March 4, 2013 at 9:56 am
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    Just discovered my library has a copy. I loved her short stories so I eagerly anticipate this, though I've no business whatsoever checking it out — I run two book groups at the library and I'm committed to a readalong for March already! And I've sworn to read more books off my OWN shelves, not the library's!!!

    Libraries are dangerous places.

    I wonder if there are copyright problems with reissues of this book? It's not old enough to be in the public domain, and they were previously published in the New Yorker. I'll try suggesting it to NYRB anyway.

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:09 pm
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      Libraries are dangerous, aren't they?! But you could read this slowly, over the course of weeks and months… tempt, tempt. (I should be reading the books for my book groups, too!)

      Do suggest it to NYRB, and see what happens.

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  • March 4, 2013 at 10:23 am
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    My library has a copy. (I checked after I'd looked at the secondhand prices and applied the smelling salts.) It sounds marvellous, and I forgive you for being such a tease about it… ;-)

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:10 pm
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      I love how many of us are able to find library copies! And yes, £75 is rather out of my budget…

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  • March 4, 2013 at 10:41 am
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    One of the advantages to a subscription to the New Yorker is that you can access the Mollie Panter-Downes' articles (and there's a couple of her poems there as well iirc) at any time. It would be lovely to have London War Notes in book/Kindle form, but this is another option for now. I love getting the magazine too ofc, but if I'm honest I'm really getting it for their incredible archives. Have recently discovered A J Liebling's essays again that way.

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:11 pm
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      Well, there you go, I had no idea! That's lovely – and she wrote it for years, didn't she? There is a 1940 collection of her columns out there too.

      I've just looked her up on Wikipedia, and she wrote the column until 1984! Gracious, so much to delight in.

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  • March 4, 2013 at 1:06 pm
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    My library has one too! On loan though at the moment, but it seems it's definitely worth waiting for.

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:12 pm
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      Oo, lovely – get in line, now! I'm impressed it's out on loan – I don't think the Oxford copy had been taken out for 20 years.

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  • March 4, 2013 at 1:39 pm
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    It sounds wonderful! My local library – which is pretty rubbish for anything not current – does not have this, of course – I would have said this is ideal material for Persephone – perhaps we should all shout loudly!

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:14 pm
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      Ah, shame that it's not in your local library Karen – is it in the county library? Or could you ILL? You'd love this!

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:34 pm
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      I've never actually investigated ILLs but it looks as if my library might do them – I shall investigate…

      (I always search the county library rather than just the local, but they're both what my youngest daughter would call pants…)

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  • March 4, 2013 at 1:42 pm
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    (and you do realise, of course, that by writing about this so persuasively you have just driven the price up, a la "Guard your Daughters"!!!!)

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    • March 4, 2013 at 9:15 pm
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      Ah, not guilty here, Karen – it was already astronomically expensive!

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  • March 4, 2013 at 10:54 pm
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    I found this in my university library, and I loved it, but I agree — I want my own copy. Already I have turned to it as a reference several times for help understanding other books that have to do with wartime London.

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    • March 7, 2013 at 9:47 pm
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      It would be so useful to have on my reference shelf! I do so hope someone reprints it.

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  • March 5, 2013 at 9:37 am
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    Great review, Simon! I see from COPAC that they have it at the University of Liverpool library so I might head over there!

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  • March 6, 2013 at 10:34 pm
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    If you call it the most useful book about the war, then I'm going to have to see if my library has it!

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  • March 24, 2013 at 8:26 am
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    Longtime lurker, first-time commenter here, coming out of the woodwork to thank you for highlighting this book! It sounded so intriguing that I had to see if I could get my hands on it. Surprisingly, my library had a copy, and I'm making my way through 1940 right now. The writing is lovely, and Panter-Downes includes so many little details of home-front life that I'd never heard of before (though I'm from the U.S., so that may account for part of it).

    It's a gem of a book, and I hope it can be republished by someone (soon!), if only so I can afford a copy of my own. :)

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    • March 24, 2013 at 1:38 pm
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      Lovely to hear from a longtime lurker! And so pleased that you managed to find a copy – I've been impressed by how many libraries have this hidden away somewhere.

      I definitely agree about your last point – oh, if only someone would publish it!

      Reply

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