Monday 03 February 1997
On 2 September, a cable arrived at Roppelegh's, the old house where she, her husband Clare Robinson, and their two small daughters lived in the Surrey countryside near Haslemere, asking her to try doing a regular "Letter from London". Panter-Downes cabled back: sorry, evacuees were being billeted on her, no time for writing. But then the evacuees were cancelled - Roppelegh's was in the backwoods, too far from the local school - and Panter-Downes cabled again: yes, she'd have a go. The arrangement worked out.
Thereafter, weekly or fortnightly, for the duration, a London Letter came out of Roppelegh's. Robinson was in the Gunners, a nanny helped with the children. Panter-Downes went up to town for several days mid-week, staying at the Lansdowne Club, and then back home put together some 1,500 words. The typed copy was taken several miles to the nearest station, often by Panter-Downes herself on a bicycle, and given to the train guard who at Waterloo handed it to a Western Union representative for cabling to New York. There it needed almost no editing - Panter-Downes's writing, even when not sent by cable, was concise.
So the readers of the New Yorker learnt about the war in England, from the Dad's Army days to rockets. They read of the notable plum crop of 1939, the evacuation of pets as well as children, the introduction of the wheatmeal loaf. She didn't skimp the bad news - in her piece of 19 May 1940, she wrote: "It is now clear to the man in the street, reading his paper as he goes home to the neat suburban villa which may soon be matchwood, like the villas near Rotterdam and Brussels, that Hitler is out to win in the next six or eight weeks by any means he can, several of which will be bad for the population of this island." In 1940 she foresaw a four-year war. Although prescient about Churchill's gift for leadership, she was later caustic about his hostility to criticism and failure to get rid of dead wood in his team. She presented the difficulties not just in terms of losses of ships or of Libyan territory but, when rubber-growing Malaya fell and January 1942 was pipe-bursting cold, in terms of no more hot-water bottles.
The effect her Letters had in Washington pre-December 1941 can only have been useful. The British temper, whether displayed in early shocks to what she called the sahib mentality, or in the buoyant response to the straight talking of Sir Stafford Cripps, found a splendid spokesperson in Mollie Panter-Downes. Weather reports might have been forbidden in England, as useful to the enemy, but New Yorker readers learnt, a week late, whether the sun shone or rain fell in London. In the bad moments she retained her humour, but also in the best: "In the spring, a young or old Englishman's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of invasion." Those thoughts had of course come in 1940, but this was 1942 when we were beginning to think of invading them.
A reader today of Panter-Downes's war Letters is taken back to the blackout, to gin in short supply and not much coal in the scuttle - which, if brass, no longer had a maid to clean it. She notes the Harrods-going bourgeoisie, as short of coupons as anyone, forced to buy second-hand clothes. Occasionally her desire to give voice to the people "of all classes" - arch-Cockneyisms overheard in bars and buses - produces what now sounds like patter for Stanley Holloway; but her willingness to seek out working-class Londoners was evident in a self- effacing report about the family of a Wapping dustman, several times bombed out, lastly by a V-1 in 1944. In the fine New Yorker stable of war correspondents, which included Janet Flanner, Rebecca West and A.J. Liebling, she held her place.
Her father, a colonel in the Royal Irish Regiment, was killed at Mons early in the First World War. She and her mother lived first in Brighton and then in a Sussex village, with not much money. Seeking independence, she wrote stories and poems. Her first book was a love story, The Shoreless Sea, written in 1922 when she was 16, serialised by the Daily Mail and published by John Murray a year later; it was reprinted seven times. In 1946 she wrote One Fine Day - "turning the pillow", in Virginia Woolf's words, from much fact to fiction. It is ultimately a more serene book than Woolf could have written: an evocation of a single day in the life of an upper-middle-class housewife, a youngish woman going grey, shopping for groceries, worrying about husband and child, worrying about the house and garden. Its unity and perfect limpid tone convey not only a world on the point of being lost but also the radiant relief of coming through the war. "We are at peace," thinks Laura Marshall, when she ends the sun- filled day on top of a Sussex down. "We still stand."
Panter-Downes went on writing "Letter from London" into the 1980s. She wrote reporter pieces and profiles on such subjects as the British Museum and E.M. Forster. Her England didn't really take in the Beatles. Her charming book about an Indian hill-station, Ooty Preserved (1967), and her perceptive account of the Swinburne/ Watts-Dunton menage, At the Pines (1971), largely appeared in the New Yorker. Her loyalty to it was matched by the loyalty to her of William Shawn, Ross's successor, to whom she dedicated One Fine Day. But her writing connection with the magazine didn't long survive its takeover by Newhouse, and Shawn's sacking in January 1987. Then, she said, the New Yorker "had begun to die".
She wrote in a garden house at Roppelegh's, where she and her husband Clare lived for over 60 years. (Fieldmice now and then gnawed her manuscripts.) Roppelegh's stands in a small wooded valley, with a stream running by. It was called West End when they found it; Clare renamed it after its 1453 owner, Richard de Roppelegh. It is a Puck of Pook's Hill sort of spot, where one feels any recent century of Enlglish history might come alive. In her writing, Mollie Panter-Downes conjured much out of the creaks and silences of old houses. The interior of the Pines was like "a rich dark cake, stuffed with Pre-Raphaelite fruit". Roppelegh's reminded one of Laura's house in One Fine Day, "a tyrant house" needing care, but also a loving partner.
Panter-Downes didn't talk of her childhood but often referred to her fortunate adult life: one house, one job, one husband. She met Clare Robinson in 1926 and married him in 1927. She used to say the main fright of her life came in 1949 when her younger daughter, upset at not going to the same school as a friend, absconded and camped out with the friend in a field near Petworth; they weren't found for eight days. At the age of 81 she was thrilled when Virago republished One Fine Day as one of their Modern Classics. She was modest about her own work - "I'm a reporter. I can't invent" - but sweetly inquisitive about that of younger writers who called and were given lunch, tea, and a going-away present of logs from Clare's woodpile.
She died at 90, the same age as Rebecca West, whose death she had written about in a New Yorker Letter in 1983. Years before, she wrote, Rebecca West had sent some foie gras, a large bottle of scent, and a French taffeta scarf to "a younger woman writer who was going through a bad time of anxiety". Panter-Downes typically didn't say, but it can be guessed who the woman was who Rebecca West thought "needed a bit of spoiling". But fortunately the bad times in the greater part of her life were not frequent. There were - and she shared them with her readers - many fine days.
Mollie Patricia Panter-Downes, writer: born London 25 August 1906; London Correspondent, the New Yorker 1939-87; married 1927 Clare Robinson (two daughters); died 22 January 1997.
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