The past month has seen my book buying habit go into overdrive.
But then the number of hours I’ve spent reading each day has increased stratospherically – and since shops have been no-go areas to me since I foolishly mistook my step on the Old Brompton Road en route to the tube and permitted my shoulder a fairly hefty collision with the pavement, I’ve been exercising my working arm with an awful lot of clicks online to bring books to my door.
And my first port of online call was, of course, to the wonderful Persephone Books!
Randomly – and unusually for me – I first bought a non-fiction title by Mollie Panter-Downes called London War Notes 1939-1945.
And what a discovery this book has been – for itself as well as the way it has fed my subsequent reading.
Panter-Downes’ book comprises ‘letters’ that the editor of The New Yorker magazine asked the writer to contribute for the duration of the war and in total she contributed over 150 from the outbreak on September 3rd to VE day in May 1945. And what makes these fascinating – to me, at least – is that they transcend history books by capturing the mood and tone of the times. As a novelist, Panter-Downes’ writing is vivid and engaging and captures personal detail in a way that historical accounts simply don’t:
Coming out into the blackout is like falling into an inky well; the only lights are the changing green and red crosses of the masked traffic signals and the tiny flashing torches of pedestrians feeling their way like Braille readers around the murky puzzle of Piccadilly Circus.
What is also captivating about London War Notes is the fact that they were written in real time – as it happened – not with the historian’s wisdom of hindsight. The letter of June 22nd 1940 just after France fell to occupation, for example, reads poignantly:
On Monday 17th – the tragic day on which Britain lost the ally with whom she had expected to fight to the bitter end – London was as quiet as a village. People stood about reading the papers. The boy who sold you the fateful paper did it in silence; the bus conductor punched your ticket in silence. There was little discussion of events because they were too bad for that.
In contrast, the description of celebrations on VE day are evocative for the opposite reason:
All day long, the deadly past was for most people only just under the surface of the beautiful safe present. Each group danced its own dance, sang its own song and went its own way as the spirit moved it. The floodlighted face of Big Ben loomed like a kind moon.
As one of the so-called post war Baby-Boomer generation, lucky recipients of clinic orange juice, quarter pint bottles of milk at playtime and everything else Butler and Bevan freely showered on us, it has always seemed curious to me that WW2 was so rarely discussed or mentioned as we grew up. It had been, after all, so relatively recent.
Perhaps that is why I am now loving novels written either during or shortly after the war. Philip Larkin’s A
Girl in Winter is set in1943(with a substantial flash back section in a pre-war summer)and was published in 1947. Although the war is never referred to directly, the mood of bleak hopelessness, of disillusion and discomfort – physical and emotional – pervades the pages and contrasts sharply with the falsely idyllic flashback summer. I can’t recommend it enough as a compelling, elegiac read that captures the mood of the times.
And finally, Monica Dickens’ novel, The Winds of Heaven has re-acquainted me with this wonderfully entertaining novelist who I first read in my teens – no YA fiction in those days to lure me away from Grown Up writers! Set in the early 1950s, it captures so truly the plight of women in those unenlightened days. But not without humour. The 58 year old protagonist, Louise, sits alone in the universal haven of Lyons near Marble Arch having tea:
When she had finished her cake, Louise lit a cigarette and smoked it with quick, naïve puffs. Dudley had not liked her to smoke, and although widowed for more than a year, and had been smoking since she came back from her husband’s funeral, she was still inexpert at it.
I am not sure how long I will be rebuffing contemporary fiction for revisiting 20th century novels and their authors- I’ve just started on Muriel Spark – but I can certainly recommend the experience – social history and brilliant story-telling all rolled into one neat parcel!