Saturday, July 30, 2011

London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes

Most books you read about World War II are written in retrospect. The authors have sifted through documents, books and articles to come up with their conclusions about the war. They report on decisive military strategies, what went wrong at a particular battle, or who the real heroes were. London War Notes is completely different in that it was written during the war as events were taking place. Mollie Panter-Downes was already a newspaper columnist for The New Yorker magazine, but when the war began she was asked to write bi-weekly articles specifically about Londoners’ reactions to the war.

What I liked about this book was its candid expression of peoples’ hopes, fears, and disappointments. It’s astounding to read their expectations of total obliteration by the Germans. They knew “it” was coming, but were never sure when or how it would happen.

However upset they might be by current events, the British were devoted to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. They loved him for not sugar-coating the hard news. They only waffled on their affections when he gave them vague platitudes or when he appointed wishy-washy cabinet members. For the most part, they felt they could go through anything if “Winnie” was behind them.

What I didn’t like about this book was that events and emotions were so understated that the book was almost boring. It took me weeks to get through it even though I love reading and love WWII history. Also, because War Notes was written during the war to people who were aware of current events, Panter-Downes doesn’t explain much. It is assumed you know what “Britain’s great disappointment” was on such and such a day. (Occasionally the editor of this book will add a footnote of the events leading up to a specific entry, but only rarely.) I kept wishing for a WWII timeline to connect the dots.

All in all, this was a worthwhile read because it gave an honest, raw view of the war from the people’s , rather than a historian’s perspective. I enjoyed Panter-Downes' excellent writing as well:

At St. Giles, a bomb had fallen slap on the sandbags protecting a stained-glass window, blowing a hole in the wall and toppling Milton off his plinth inside... To observers here, it sometimes seems that more than Milton has been toppled off his plinth. All that is best in the good life of civilized effort appears to be slowly and painfully keeling over in the chaos of man's inhumanity to man. (Aug 30, 1940)


Corey P. said...

Great review! The book certainly sounds intriguing, and much different from your typical WWII history book. I may have to check it out.

How come whenever I read book reviews, my TBR list grows? :D

Anna said...

This sort of reminds me of Nella Last's diaries or the compilation of diaries of ordinary British people in Our Longest Days. On the one hand, it's exciting to read what happened from the POV of people living it at that moment, but on the other, it can be a little dry and boring at times. I've linked to your review on War Through the Generations.