The 111th entry on the Persephone list, and one of this year’s spring reprints, is Mollie Panter-Downes’ excellent London War Notes: 1939-1945. First published in the US in 1971 and the UK in 1972, the collection gathers together material which was originally published in The New Yorker during the Second World War.
Between 1939 and 1945, Panter-Downes wrote a regular ‘Letter from London’. These letters began at a pivotal time for Great Britain, as: ‘The first was written on the very Sunday that Neville Chamberlain informed the nation that his untiring efforts to preserve peace had failed’. In all, she contributed 153 such pieces, as well as two dozen short stories, which Persephone have already gathered together in the Good Evening, Mrs Craven collection.
Edited by William Shawn, this new edition features a far-reaching preface which has been written by David Kynaston. He believes that Panter-Downes’ humour is ‘wryly observational’, and this volume rightly leaves ‘historians as well as readers forever in her debt’ for the slice of wartime life which it presents.
The original American spellings and turns of phrase have been retained within London War Notes, as they ‘give a better sense of the period and of Mollie Panter-Downes’s original audience’. Another nice touch within the book is the way in which it has been split up into sections, each of which refer to different years within the Second World War. Each thus begins with a helpful timeline of the main historical events which occurred in any given year, which are both of importance in general terms, or which had definite consequences within Britain, and thus had major effects upon the populous – the rationing of petrol in September 1939, for example.
Robert Harris called Panter-Downes ‘the Jane Austen of the Home Front’, and it is easy to see why. She is incredibly observant and, Kynaston agrees, she ‘deftly and economically makes us feel present without ever resorting to purple prose’. Panter-Downes is a wonderful writer; she is coolly intelligent, and is never one to get flustered. One immediately receives the impression that she was one of those incredibly collected and headstrong women, who always tried to make the best of any given situation. Each of her observations within London War Notes is of value, and never does she under- or overstate anything. Panter-Downes is particularly fabulous at reasserting her own position, and that of her country, against the war at large. She is a thoughtful prose writer, too: ‘The London crowds are cool,’ she writes on the day that war is declared, ‘in spite of thundery weather which does its best to scare everybody by staging unofficial rehearsals for aid raids at the end of breathlessly humid days’.
London War Notes is a wonderful and all-encompassing read. It is a fabulous piece of non-fiction, and feels incredibly fitting for the varied Persephone Classics list. As far as journalism – and particularly wartime journalism from the perspective of somebody who was surviving on the Home Front – goes, London War Notes is at the very pinnacle.