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Review of London War Notes

Laura Freeman in the Times Literary Supplement, 10 June 2015

It took barely a week after Britain declared war on Germany in 1939 for London children to become hardened on the threat of gas, bomb and invasion. One mother, encouraging her little girl to put on her gas mask and pretend to be Mickey Mouse, was sternly rebuked: '“It’s all right, Mummie, I know what it is. It’s a gas mask, and we put it on when they bomb us"'. The exchange was overhead by Mollie Panter-Downes and related in the second of her wartime 'Letters from London', published in The New Yorker. Over the next six years, she would write 153 dispatches for the magazine, shaping how affluent, educated Americans understood the war, particularly the destruction of the Blitz. The articles were first collected and published as London War Notes in 1972.

Before the Second World War, Panter-Downes had been a moderately successful novelist, married with children and living in the Home Countries. She wrote from a shed at the bottom of her garden. When Germany invaded Poland, the New Yorker’s editor, Harold Ross, half-remembered reading a piece on Jewish refugees in London by a somebody Panter-Downes, and asked her to write him a dispatch. It was the first of many. AS Davis Kynaston notes in his introduction to this new edition, Panter-Downes has wisdom, humour and a keen eye for detail. She raises an eyebrow at a Telegraph report of a woman carrying her gas mask in a 'satchel of violet velvet adorned with artificial roses' and at gas masks for children decorated with coloured pictures of Donald Duck and Little Bo Peep. Eton, she observes, has abolished their top hats because the gas masks won’t go over them. She makes a plea for the poor dachshund, abandoned by owners for the crime of being German, and writes with relish of the fairground stalls, which encourage you to 'knock Hitler’s block off'. She salutes commuters who boast about the size of the bombs craters in their gardens, where once they might have bragged of their roses or prize squashes, and follows the debate about whether gentlemen golfers should be allowed to carry rifles in their golf bags so that they might shoot down Germans parachuting onto the fairway.

She records what is missed by derring-do male war correspondents, capturing instead the stoic humour of blitzed and rationed Britons, and the terrors of nightly bombs on the Home-Front. 'The announcement of the first air-raid deaths are beginning to appear in the obituary columns of the morning papers,' she cabled to the New Yorker offices in a sombre 'Letter' in August 1940. 'No mention is made of the cause of death, but the conventional phrase "very suddenly" is always used. Thousands of men, women, and children are scheduled to die very suddenly, without any particular notice being taken of them in the obituary columns.'

 

 

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