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London War Notes

by Mollie Panter-Downes

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'Assembling Hawker Hurricanes' by Elsie Hewland, 1942 ©Manchester City Galleries

PREFACE BY DAVID KYNASTON
459pp
ISBN 9781910263013

Mollie Panter-Downes not only wrote short stories (Good Evening,Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories and Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories) but also non-fiction ‘Letters from London’ for The New Yorker.  She wrote her first one on September 3rd 1939; on May 12th 1945 she wrote her hundred and fifty-third. 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 [which is a leitmotif in Few Eggs and no Oranges, Persephone Book No. 9], 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.'

And as the TLS said when London War Notes was published in 1971: ‘For sheer range of mood and matter Mollie Panter-Downes leaves most of her rivals standing. Nothing more vivid has been written about those early days of soft sunshine when it was hard to disentangle the dream from the reality, a long summer afternoon in which fantasy flourished, and the barrage balloons glittered “like swollen fairy elephants lolling against the blue”. Naturally she had an appreciative eye for the “battalions of willing ladies who have emerged from the herbaceous borders to answer the call of duty” and is delighted to note the success in a fire-watching contest of “a team of determined matrons who scuttled over trick old roofs like lady Tarzans”. She has an ear for the colourful remark and notices that tulips in the London parks are the colour of blood. The tone should not be misinterpreted. She can be witty, mocking and severe in as many paragraphs. She can even tell Churchill off where necessary. The communicators are frequently chastised. Reactions to the Rudolf Hess affair make the public doubtful whether it is “reading about Hitler’s righthand man or Gary Cooper”. Throughout we get the clear message that her loyalty is not to government but to “the great, patient, courageous mass of British people”.’ And as the author of the new Persephone Preface, David Kynaston, comments: ‘I value and cherish Mollie Panter-Downes as a writer for I think three main reasons: her eye for detail, her humour, and her wisdom. The eye for detail – essentially a novelist’s eye – is abundant in London War Notes... The humour is understated and very much of the wryly observational rather than rib-tickling variety.’ And he concludes: ‘The great chroniclers of the comédie humaine also impart wisdom. For me as a historian...the most important thing that I have learned from Mollie Panter-Downes is the frequent (though not invariable) disconnect between the world of politics and policies and issues on the one hand, the world of private individuals living their lives as best they can on the other…There is other wisdom too, a wisdom ultimately grounded in an intense realism.

Under Categories on our website we already have a total of seventeen books about the Second World War: how can we be so certain of this, the eighteenth’s, originality and readability? Well, as ever, it’s all in the writing. Mollie Panter- Downes’s style has wit, integrity and incisiveness; and she has an extra, classic quality that singles her out from her contemporaries. As an early reader wrote to us from America: ‘I’m just a few pages in to London War Notes and already think it is utterly stunning in its immediacy, oh, and gosh the writing! MPD is sort of a genius.’ And that is the point – Mollie was indeed a ‘sort of genius’.

 

Endpaper

 An early 1940's rayon scarf designed and manufactured by Filmyara Fabrics.

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