London War Notes by Mollie Panter – Downes A Persephone Great!

I love Persephone books! So much that I have a grey sitting room with a lovely bookshelf (three shelves) full of the Persephone grey books. I do own the complete set (well, number 45 has gone missing – tsk!) and collect duplicates on the rare occasions I find them in second hand shops. So yes, I have well over a hundred Persephone grey books. Not that I’m obsessed or anything….

London War Notes

Persephone do eighteen books on the Second World War. This includes novels, short story collections and possibly my favourite , Few Eggs and No Oranges. This is actually a diary written by Vere Hodgson of her experiences in wartime London, which I have reviewed elsewhere. You will find details of all the books and much else besides on the website which is well worth a look.

My most recent read is one of their newest books, no. 111. Mollie Panter – Downes is an author of short stories, which also appear on the Persephone list. This book is a collection of her regular letters/ articles written for The New Yorker from 1939 onwards. In it she writes of a London under attack, dealing with air raid precautions, shortages and Government attitudes. It is a fascinating book of reportage which we can read with the benefit of hindsight, but which represents a mission which Mollie was engaged upon; it was vital that the Americans provided the resources to pursue the war and engage in hostilities themselves on the side of the Allies. Thus Mollie had to pursue a careful line of truth, humour and propaganda in order to influence her readers on the other side of the Atlantic. Readers of other writing of the period will appreciate that terror and despair, however truthful, would not attract and retain readers, but humour and realism may do so. We have the word pictures of old ladies running across roof tops, the way newspapers were handed on as soon as read in order to spread the news of battle, and how, when entertaining soldiers from America, tea is not so welcome as whisky which they will not realize”that it’s hard to come by in England nowadays”. Thus is an entire rationing system conveyed subtly and without complaint. As  early as 1942 people are eager to know about plans to invade Europe by the Allies, which we perhaps would not realize when remembering the V.E. Day celebrations of 1945. Mollie reveals a country desperate for information and hope, and does it in elegant prose which manages to convey much between the lines. For example, when deploring the reservations about women being ARP wardens for moral reasons, she points out that the women of Stalingrad have no choice about being involved in total war. The evacuations of children and their return to London is covered.Mollie manages to make some sense out of a time of confusion, which is no mean achievement given the difficulties of even getting her copy to the US.

This is an immensely readable book which I read quickly, never getting bogged down in facts and figures, but seeing the human war that was being waged on the home front.  The style is friendly but truthful, well written especially when considering its immediacy and heavy propaganda role. It would definitely be of interest to anyone who wants to find out about the Second World War from a first hand view, a woman’s view, and an entertaining read.