Mollie Panter-Downes not only wrote short stories but also non-fiction “Letters from London” for The New Yorker. Her New Yorker obituary observed: “Other correspondents were writing about the war, of course, often with great power and conviction, but they dealt with large incidents and events, while Mollie wrote of the quotidian stream of English life, of what it was like to actually live in a war, of what the government was doing, of the nervous sound of the air-raid sirens, of the disappearance of the egg, of children being evacuated – of all the things that made life in England bearable and unbearable.” In a steady flow of copy, directed to editors she had never met at a magazine she had never visited, she undoubtedly did more to explain wartime England to American readers than anyone else in the field.
I love primary sources and I’ve been wanting to try a book from Persephone, so London War Notes was just the thing. Panter-Downes lived in and around London during World War II and wrote weekly articles for The New Yorker, describing the state and mood of the city. This 459 page book is an edited collection of those pieces. I’m not big on military tactics or strategy but real, lived experiences on the home front are exactly my thing.
Panter-Downes paints a vivid picture of what London was like from the first rumbles of war, through the Blitz, up to VE Day. Her attention to detail serves well, and single sentence scenes bring the war to life.
It has always been a strange and startling sight to see middle-aged Kensington matrons in fur coats standing grimly in line waiting for six pennyworth of gumdrops, as though it were Biblical manna.
There were so many things I hadn’t even heard about. Blackout deaths, where vehicles would strike and kill pedestrians on the dark streets. Double summer time, a two hour version of daylight savings, was put into effect to try and conserve energy. And at one point newspapers were forbidden from printing weather reports, as it was feared it’d give the enemy an advantage.
The detail is paired with humor to make each entry pleasantly readable, despite the circumstances.
The Christmas dinner isn’t going to be so particularly festive, either, from all accounts. Turkeys are difficult to find, though it’s rumored that tinned ones will be available – a bleak prospect for those who can’t work up any suitably seasonable emotions at the thought of getting out the yuletide can-opener.
And when she aims your heartstrings, she hits.
Old men and women call to find out if that can be evacuated to safe areas and the bureaus try to find billets for them, but it isn’t easy. “Old and infirm people take a good deal of looking after and people grow tired of them” is the official explanation – a full-length tragedy in seventeen words.
Once more London finds itself a blitz city. A city officially enters that class when people ring up their friends the day after a noisy night to find out if they’re still there.
I wouldn’t necessarily recommend London War Notes to someone with little interest, but if you’re curious about the lived home front experience it’s a great place to start.