Saturday, July 28, 2018

London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

It's taken me more than two months, but I've finally finished London War Notes, my tenth book for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018. First published in book format in 1971, this is a collection of essays written biweekly for the New Yorker during World War Two. It remained sadly out of print for many years until Persephone books republished it in 2014. I'm quite fascinated by the war years, particularly the war at home, so I was sure this would be right up my alley. Only the length had discouraged me since I bought it four years ago and I thought this would be a good time to get to it. 

Of course these essays discuss a lot of what's going on in London and the surrounding area during the war, especially the bombings, there's definitely a lot more history about the battles and the politics that were going on. There has been so much written about the war (go into any Barnes and Noble bookstore and you will be amazed at how many nonfiction books there are about WWII), but so much of what's published is centered around Europe, I'd forgotten how critical the battles in North Africa and the Far East were, especially places like Burma and Singapore. So much of what Americans associate with WW2 in Asia is centered around Japan -- I didn't really realize how significant the loss of Burma and the rubber plantations was to the war effort and everyday life in Britain. I did have to stop a number of times and look up historical events mentioned in the book that would have been common knowledge at the time of publication.

The other thing that really struck me about this book was the overwhelming sense of anxiety. As an American growing up in the late 20th and 21st century, I cannot imagine living with the thought that you could be bombed at any moment, to be evacuated from your home, or to have to endure rationing for food, clothing, and fuel. It's a little easier to read knowing that the war would be won, but it must have seemed like it was dragging out forever -- and of course rationing didn't end for a long time afterward. I've been a little disappointed being unable to buy Warburton's crumpets the past few weeks because of the CO2 shortage, boo hoo.

Detail from the endpapers of the Persephone edition
I do, however, think that I can relate to the sense of anxiety. Every day when I wake up and look at the news, I keep waiting for the worst, and wonder how much longer it will get worse before it gets better. I know a lot of Americans are feeling similar anxiety. I'm sure it's worse for people actually living in the U. S.

I'm very glad I read it, but this is the slowest I've read any book for this challenge, in this year or previous years. I suppose was a mistake to be reading this 459 page nonfiction book about World War Two at the same time I was reading a 661 page memoir about World War One (Testament of Youth). You think? I did in fact take a long break from London War Notes in June. I thought that it would be easy to pick it up again halfway, but I was wrong -- I really feel like I lost momentum. 

And now for a lighter anecdote! Reading this book also reminded me of one of my visit to the Churchill War Rooms during one of my visits to London. It's part of the Imperial War Museum and is really fascinating -- the underground bunker where Churchill and others lived, worked, and slept during the war. It is quite fascinating and there were a lot of interesting displays. Of course one has to walk through the gift shop on the way out and this was one of my favorite purchases:

Yes, these are two-handed oven mitts with a wartime propaganda slogan. I got it as part of a set with a matching apron (also available as a tea towel). There were a lot of fun postcards and prints with wartime slogans. Here's another of my favorites:

It's really worth visiting if you're in London and have any interest in wartime history. There's also an online shop here if you just want the oven mitts or the poster version.

So -- that's book #10 for my TBR Pile Challenge 2018! I'm making good progress and hopefully I'll complete the last two AND my two alternate reads this year! How is everyone else doing with their TBR piles? 


  1. Excellent review, Karen! This is sitting on my shelf and I'm looking forward to digging into it in the near future. You're point about anxiety here in America as close to wartime anxiety - or at least pre-WWII anxiety - is spot on. It really feels like we are on the brink of something catastrophic at the moment. On a more fun note, I love those oven mitts!

    1. They're so cute but I actually am afraid to use them and get them dirty. Or set them on fire.

  2. I enjoyed this book, it didn't take me long to read it and possibly was easier for me as I didn't have to look anything up, I often read books that were written during the war and I always want to say to the authors - don't worry, everything will be all right in the end. Presumably writing was a lifeline for them and something to concentrate on rather than bombs. I was doing well with my TBR pile and then I requested some books from the library and then more books, then I bought quite a few books in Edinburgh ... oh well there are worse addictions.

    1. That's what I tell myself when I count all my unread books! It could be worse, right?

      I also enjoy wartime books and I wonder if there's a subtle difference between those set in the war but written afterward, when everyone knew it would finally end and that the Allies would win. I suppose that would be a great topic for a Master's Thesis.

  3. This morning I was making decaf in my office and the lid came off my coffee package unexpectedly and spilled about 4 tablespoons in my storage (formerly file) drawer. I was tempted to get the vacuum but then thought, in WW2 or the Great War (or the American Civil War), that much real coffee during the hardest times might have caused some people to turn in relatives to the enemy. So there I was, digging coffee out of the file drawer with a spoon (I got ~98% of it). It gives you context to have the privilege of knowing those who were alive in those days (my in-laws in Poland, my family in the US), but reading their stories (Testament of Youth is excellent for the Great War) puts you there too. Have you read Vere Hodgdon's Few Eggs and No Oranges (Persephone)? It is large, and takes some committment, but she lived and wrote through WW2 also.

  4. I searched your blog and saw that you read and discussed Few Eggs and no Oranges in 2014. Sorry I didnt search first! But I would like to recommend Frances Faviell's A Chelsea Concerto. Not sure recommend is the right word, perhaps draw to your attention might be better. Its pretty darned harrowing in parts, it chronicle's Frances' experiences during the early Blitz as a nurse and aid worker. Some of her experiences are difficult to read, in our privileged times, but she got through it (although I have to wonder if her exposure to explosions, debris, etc may have contributed to her early death from cancer. Asbestos was common then and it was not known until much later what a carcinogen it was especially when airborne). A Chelsea Concerto is back in print from Middlebrow Books at Dean Street Press.


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