London War Notes, 1939-1945 by Mollie Panter-Downes was my second book of 2013 and also my second book of the year by Panter-Downes, having started with her beautiful post-war novel, One Fine Day. I loved the novel, though perhaps not quite as much as I loved Good Evening, Mrs Craven, a volume of her wartime short stories, but nowhere near as much as I loved this volume of wartime journalism. Every fortnight throughout the war, Panter-Downes wrote a “Letter from London” for The New Yorker, giving American readers a glimpse into life during wartime as civilians dealt with rationing and bombs, suffered victories and defeats. Published in 1971, this book contains all of the letters and provides one of the finest, most perfectly observed portraits of wartime England I have ever read.
Panter-Downes has a gift for relating small particulars that amounts to a kind of genius. I loved her use of imagery in her fiction but was not sure how that would translate to journalism. I need not have worried. From the first letter it was clear that, if anything, as a journalist she was even more attuned to the details. Her description of the civilian response to the declaration of war, with middle-aged women and retired officers mobilizing in the country, was wonderful:
All over the country, the declaration of war has brought a new lease of life to retired army officers, who suddenly find themselves the commanders of battalions of willing ladies who have emerged from the herbaceous borders to answer the call of duty. Morris 10s, their windshields plastered with notices that they are engaged on business of the ARP or WVS (both volunteer services), rock down quiet country lanes propelled by firm-lipped spinsters who yesterday could hardly have said ‘Boo!’ to an aster. (3 September 1939)
She also manages to include information I didn’t know or had forgotten about and, more delightfully, to corroborate information I’ve gleaned from novels. Having enjoyed Angela Thirkell’s rants about the awful standard of programming offered by the BBC during the war, it was great fun to hear someone else complain about it too:
…it does seem probable that schemes for reopening theatre and cinemas will be drawn up shortly. Meanwhile, Britons find themselves dependent for entertainment on the BBC, which desperately filled the gaps in its first wartime programs with gramophone recordings and jolly bouts of community singing stiff with nautical heave-hos and folksy nonny-noes. There has already been considerable public criticism of these programs and of the tendency of announcers to read out important news in tones that suggest they are understudying for Cassandra on the walls of Troy. (10 September 1939)
No wonder they had to reopen the theatres and cinemas if that was the only entertainment on offer!
Even though Panter-Downes was writing for an American audience, she does not pander. She reports on what is happening in London and rural England, which is not necessarily what Americans were most interested in hearing about. America’s entry into the war (and the bombing of Pearl Harbour) is over-shadowed by public concern for friends and family members working or stationed in the Far East:
On Monday, December 8th, London felt as it did at the beginning of the war. Newsdealers stood on the corners handing out papers as steadily and automatically as if they were husking corn; people bought copies on the way out to lunch and again on the way back, just in case a late edition might have sneaked up on them with some fresher news. Suddenly and soberly, this little island was remembering its vast and sprawling possessions of Empire. It seemed as though every person one met had a son in Singapore or a daughter in Rangoon; every post office was jammed with anxious crowds finding out about cable rates to Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, or Penang. (14 December 1941)
Though she can touchingly discuss the fears of her fellow Englishmen and women, she is not sentimental. Part of what I loved so much about Good Evening, Mrs Craven was her willingness to explore the anger and disgruntlement that lurked beneath the more acceptable stoicism or jolliness. Here, somewhat surprisingly given her audience, she is just as open about the mood of bitterness and frustration that settled over the country during the darkest moments of the war in 1942: the Pacific theatre had opened, a German invasion seemed imminent, and even Churchill was no longer infallible:
His promises that Singapore would be held and that Rommel’s forces would be destroyed haven’t helped the public to view with equanimity to the ignominious British retreats in Malaya and Libya. You hear people say that they have always trusted him in the past because they knew that he would let them have the truth, however unpalatable; now there’s an uneasy suspicion that fine oratory may sometimes carry away the orator as well as his audience. You also hear people say that anyway they’ve had enough of fine oratory; what they would like is action and a sign from Mr Churchill that he understands the profoundly worried temper of the country… (14 February 1942)
Once the outlook for victory began to improve – perhaps especially once that started to happen – Panter-Downes was still there, perfectly observing and relating the mood of a population tense with anticipation:
Londoners, normally as good-tempered a crowd of people as you could hope to find anywhere, are beginning to show the strain of these first keyed-up days of a year which by now every statesman must have hailed as one of fateful decision…Naturally, a lot of the native good humour and manners is still around, but the surface impression is that everybody’s nerves are frayed. Possibly it’s the inevitable hangover of the winter’s flu epidemic, plus four years of wartime diet, but it seems more likely to be an inevitable result of simply waiting for something to happen. (30 January 1944)
The writing is unfaultable but the book as a whole can make for heavy reading. Each letter is dense with details, providing an invaluable blend of political and domestic observations, but as a collection the flow is slightly awkward at times. There are repetitions and contradictions which would not have been obvious to The New Yorker’s subscribers, reading these letters months or years apart, but which are noticeable here. Still, editing the letters and removing content would have me up in arms: it might give the book a better flow but it would sadly impair its value as a historical document. What I am truly bothered by is the editor’s apparent disinterest in providing any introduction to Panter-Downes or information on her life when she was writing these letters, and I am irritated his only half-hearted effort to clarify which battles and world events Panter-Downes references (though not always by name) in her letters. Battles that once occupied the headlines are now long forgotten and though there are some explanatory notes I think more detail would make the book more accessible.
These letters lack the personal touch of diaries (really the only other first-hand accounts of the war available) since Panter-Downes maintains journalistic detachment throughout, detailing the experiences of the everyman rather than relating anecdotes about herself (at least openly), but with her clear eye for detail Panter-Downes captured moments that other accounts omit. She is calm in her reporting and thankfully unexcitable but knows exactly what will be of most interest to her readers – both then and now. Having sampled three very different examples of her writing, I can now declare that it is Panter-Downes the journalist who impresses me the most.