Daily Archives: March 23, 2012

‘London War Notes 1939-1945’ by Mollie Panter-Downes

1971, 378 p.

Recently I read a collection of short stories by Mollie Panter-Downes (my word, that is an unfortunate name!) and I was so impressed by her writing that I tracked down this collection of her “Letter from London” columns that were published in the New Yorker between 1939-1945.  The book is divided into seven sections, for each year of the war, each commencing with a brief one-page time line of major events during that year.

Having now read her fictional and non-fictional writing, I can see the connections between them.  Many of her short stories were set in the Midsomer-ish surrounds of village life, and certainly she writes quite  a bit about evacuation and billetting, and the dissonance between viewpoints of rural dwellers as distinct from those of Londoners.

These letters were written in real-time, and thus reflect the fluctuations in perceptions of the war: the initial excitement that it was actually starting, the sudden awareness of the stretch of empire once Singapore fell,  the mental readjustment that people had to make once they realized that the dreaded-Communist Russians were fighting a common enemy and thereby fellow-sufferers, the longing for the second front to open up, and the dread when it did.

There’s a certain chutzpah in presuming to speak for ‘a people’ , although the late Alistair Cook in his ‘Letters from America’ and Hugh Mackay with his quarterly ‘Mackay Reports’ do not seem to have found it problematic.  I certainly don’t think that I would be brave enough to claim to do so. When you are surrounded by like-minded people, it comes as a bit of a shock to realize that you might actually be in a minority! I often find myself  having to remember that the views of a left-leaning, somewhat academic, northern suburbs fifty-year old white woman from Melbourne are not necessarily those held in western-suburbs Sydney, or the resource-rich states of Queensland and Western Australia, let alone anyone of a different age cohort or nationality.  Likewise, when Panter-Downes speaks of an impatience with the paltriness of the sacrifices that people were being asked to make by the Government in 1941, or when she chides the London working-class for taking children from their safe country billets prematurely and returning them to the danger of the city, I do wonder how representative her views are.

But, irrespective of this, her notes do provide a wonderfully intimate and domestic view of life where somehow or other a sense of normality is carved out of such very extraordinary circumstances.  She writes of the theatres and cinemas starting their shows early at 5.30 so that people can get home before the bombing starts,  the issuing of the first directory of emergency addresses for large business firms “if London is rendered uninhabitable”, the marvellous tulip display in the parks in 1940,  people lining up to stay in the Tube stations overnight while the evening-rush commuters are streaming out.  She speaks of the weariness of people in the closing year of the war, falling asleep almost instantly sitting in a bus or train, having been awake night after night with bombing raids. She describes the dissonance of being able to stand on tiptoe to peep at the old gentlemen in the St James Street clubs where the large windows were left uncurtained as soon as the black-out restrictions were lifted, even though after five and a half years many people still drew their own curtains as a matter of habit.

I hadn’t realized that the planning for post-war reconstruction had been announced by the coalition government while the war was still underway. Knowing what we do of the long, skimpy years of post-war shortages, the optimism about the future seems at once both brave and rather pathetic, given that so many of those gleaming high-rise housing estates turned out to be so bleak and blighted.

She is an absolutely beautiful writer: crisp, pithy, observant. Here’s just a sample, picked at random:

What had been an ill wind for many people had blown good to the glaziers, from whose vans, backed against the pavement, hundreds of square feet of glass were being lifted out of straw packing.  The danger from falling glass and odd bits of masonry was still considerable, and police barricaded the surrounding streets to anyone who couldn’t show a pass or prove legitimate business there.  Opposite St Giles, the church where Milton is buried, the front had been blown out of a dark and Dickensian little eating house, and two men in bartenders’ aprons sat together discussing events among the broken mahogany hattracks and scattered spittoons.  A notice tacked up outside announced business as usual.  Around the corner, in Aldersgate, a sign in front of a delicatessen shop which had suffered the same fate proclaimed cheerfully, “We are wide open”.  It was doing a good trade among customers who did not seem to be moved by the facts that they could leave by the conventional door or through the space where the window had been.”  August 30, 1940.

My rating:  Yet another 9/10

Sourced from: The CARM centre ( i.e. the Victorian universities’ repository for old academic books), placed by Deakin University who in turn received it from Gordon Institute of Technology. What a well-travelled book!

Read because: I think that Mollie Panter-Downes is pretty damned good.