29 November 2019

London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

While watching World on Fire recently, I was especially interested in Helen Hunt's character, Nancy, an American journalist detailing events during WWII from the Polish-German border.   The content of one particular report was enough to concern a member of the Nazi Party into bullying her.  Refusal to comply with his 'request' to pull the piece would result in dire consequences against Nancy's German friends.  Bearing witness to the impact of war is an incredibly vital role.   When World on Fire ended I went straight to the shelves and grabbed my copy of London War Notes.

Already a successful novelist, Panter-Downes was in her mid-thirties when asked to write a regular column for the New Yorker.   From 1939 to 1945 she wrote 153 letters to its American readers describing the mood of  London's citizens, the details of rationing, the results of European invasions and the political landscape.  Living in Haslemere, Panter-Downes would travel to London for short periods of time each week to collect notes before returning home to write her article.  Then it had to be delivered....

'...transported by car or bicycle through the blackout to the guard on a London-bound train, where it would be met by a Western Union messenger who cabled it to New York.'

From the first pages of real-time reporting it's impossible not to feel downcast about almost everyone's optimism that the war would be over in a matter of months.  Rationing isn't much of a concern, but the blue light installed in train carriages makes reading at night nearly impossible.  But, if you nurse a cup of coffee in the Dining Car, the blackout curtains allow a relatively bright light to read by.  Reading these notes with hindsight we're aware of just how minuscule a small thing such as a reading light will be once the bombing begins.  An uneasy feeling ripples through parents when The Express published a slogan saying '...every schoolboy who could throw a cricket ball was perfectly capable of throwing a grenade'.

With a strong resolve to plow ahead and tackle incidents with a 'come what may' attitude, one delicatessen in Aldersgate posted a sign after suffering bomb damage that read 'We are wide open'.  Customers visiting the shop enjoyed the novelty of entering and leaving the shop through the front window.  After a sweet shop was damaged during a bombing raid, two little boys had the time of their lives helping themselves to a few treats.  A crime of opportunity I certainly wouldn't begrudge them!

There were two particular points made that I hadn't really given thought to before.  The first was an appeal to the families of service men and women to regularly write letters assuring them that everyone was safe back in England.  We're used to the image of a relieved family receiving word that their son or daughter is safe while serving their country abroad.  Women and men stationed in the midst of war were every bit as worried about their families in England surviving the night during German air raids.  The second interesting point is that Americans living in London were not allowed to send letters to the States asking for items such as food.

'The official attitude toward food parcels is divided between reluctance to check these friendly impulses and a wish that precious shipping space could be left clear for bulk consignments, which would benefit the many instead of the few.' 

There were other advantages that pertained to the few over the many.  Those fortunate enough to be of the middle and upper classes with a home in the countryside were scoffed at for abandoning London during extended raids, then popping back to London for supplies when it quieted down. 

By the end of June, 1941 Panter-Downes was expressing the British public's view that America should become actively engaged in the the war against Germany.  She then follows this up with the  sentiment that British schools will be adding more American content to their history lessons....so that they will have the right background for telling their children about Anglo-American co-operation'.  The message is a soft sell but she makes her point.

London War Notes is a collection of Panter-Downes columns that can be dipped in and out of; each year of the war begins with a page listing the dates and topic covered.  I chose to read this collection from cover to cover and feel the experience was all the richer for it.  Reading the columns in order brought to life the highs and lows of each passing year.  British citizens were anxious about the start of another war but there was optimism and even some excitement.  The span of time during the middle of the war was filled with weariness, short tempers, and worry about a German invasion.  As the end of the war edges closer and victory is within sight, jubilation and a surge of renewed strength ripples through every community.

The last few pages describe Churchill's declaration over the radio that the war was over and the sea of people spilling onto the streets of London to celebrate.  Conga lines wound their way along Piccadilly and thousands upon thousands congregated in front of Buckingham Palace to see the Royal family and cheer.  They shouted for Winston Churchill to appear on the balcony and screamed their approval when he did.  There's footage on youtube which was fun to see.  As night falls, and not all streetlights are working, it really gives you a sense of how dangerous it would have been navigating through the dark.

A valuable collection for anyone interested in World War II chronicles.  I certainly took away plenty of new knowledge and understanding.  My particular interest is the social history aspect of this era but there's also an equally valuable amount of writing that covers the political arena, wartime policy and maneuvering between countries to satisfy any reader's area of interest.   

Celebrating VE Day on Piccadilly - 8 May, 1945


  1. I am so grateful that I was born just after the end of hostilities, I don't know how I would have coped with all the noise and uncertainty.

    Have you read Vere Hodgson's book Few Eggs and no Oranges? That was, for me, very moving.

    1. During one of my first trips to the Imperial War Museum in London I sat in a contraption that replicates the sounds of an air raid. A handful of us huddled in near darkness as a recording of whizzing sounds, yelling, and dull thuds played. Then, the whole capsule suddenly shook and we could smell cordite.....there were shrieks, let me tell you! I don't know how people went through that for years.

      Few Eggs and No Oranges is a brilliant page-turning read that I scurried off to bed with every night until it was finished. Hodgson certainly painted a vivid picture of the Blitz, didn't she.

  2. I snapped this one up when it was first reissued by Persephone Press. Very immediate, isn't it? I found that the first half of the book was more about how individuals were coping, and the later articles focussed more on the wider view, politics, bigger events.

    By the way, I see you're reading Mudlark right now. So am I, and lapping it up. If you haven't already found Lara's Instagram page, I recommend you follow it along as you read. She has catalogued every single item she describes in her book, chapter by chapter, with historical context.


    1. Oh Susan, my progress with this book has been so slow because I'm reading it with my mudlarking finds beside me. Lara is making me look at everything with such a close eye! And yes, I was on her instagram page yesterday but thanks so much for mentioning it. And in a timely coincidence, Lara was a guest on the BBC History podcast the other day. I all but forgot that Kip was on the end of the leash because I was riveted to the program while on our walk.

      As for London War Notes, it is very immediate. It never fails to amaze me that journalists and authors seemed so assured in the face of war. They didn't know how it would end. I like to think I wouldn't be hiding under a blanket in the closet, but have a enough focus to write anything sensible? Pfffft.....

  3. I adore this book and was over the moon when Persephone decided to reissue it. I love MPD's writing always and loved seeing London during those years through her eyes. It's been 6 years since I read it now but I still remember her piece after the fall of Hong Kong and how that was reverberating in London, having more of an impact on the mood of the town than the news of America joining the war. Such a fantastic book.

    1. War Notes is definitely a 'Claire' book! The excitement of picking up a copy of a book I'd been hoping to find in second-hand shops for years was beyond satisfying. And then, as is so often the case, just a couple of months later I found a battered copy in a shop in Ontario. The price had been discounted, making me wonder if they knew about the reprint.
      Hope your weekend is a lovely one, Claire!

  4. Clare Hollingworth's book Three Weeks War in Poland (1940) documents her experiences in Germany and Poland as the war began. She was a well-known war correspondent sometimes known as "the woman who scooped World War II". The Three Weeks War book is difficult to find in print, but is available on line at archive.org.