Monday, 29 June 2015

'London War Notes' by Mollie Panter-Downes

Yet again, the ever-reliable Persephone Books delivers a cracking good book that should never have been left gathering dust in a drawer somewhere.

Regular Persephone readers will know Mollie Panter-Downes from her books Good Evening, Mrs Craven and Minnie’s Room, which the publisher has previously republished to huge acclaim. In London War Notes Mollie’s attention turns, as the title suggests, to World War Two, during which she was a London correspondent for The New Yorker magazine.

Over almost six years, Mollie submitted 153 columns about the reality of London life during the war for the New York readership. But there is no sign of a woe-is-me attitude, instead the British stiff upper lip and resilient sense of humour shines through in Mollie’s glorious letters. 

Eschewing the grander, more publicised wartime events that hit the headlines, Mollie focused on the day-to-day realities of war life for Londoners: the excitement of receiving a bag of gumdrops, the uproar and criticism of the threatened milk cuts, and the bizarre anecdotes of trying to travel anywhere after the government painted over all the road signs (and presumably hoped the enemy would have “left its maps on the mantelpiece”). Much of this was due to what Mollie refers to as “the clampdown on genuine news” since there was so much censorship over what was broadcast during the war years.

Her phrases and personality are what make the letters so compelling and vivid, even to a reader almost 100 years after the events. Much of what we know now of the war years is what has been recreated for us in Hollywood films and BBC TV series – which, of course, have also largely been produced by people who also never lived through the war (for which we are, of course, all unendingly grateful). To read something so real from someone who was writing in the middle of the field is truly refreshing.

In his introduction, historian David Kynaston reveals that Mollie was not in fact The New Yorker’s first choice for the column – that honour went to American journalist Janet Flanner, who was already a correspondent for the title but was stranded on the “wrong side of the Atlantic” during the war. Mollie was known as a bestselling author and having recently written a piece for New Yorker editor Harold Ross he decided to take a chance and offer her the column instead. A risk that paid dividends. In the post-war years, Mollie continued to write for The New Yorker on a regular basis on all manner of subjects.

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