'For a week, everybody in London had been saying every day that if there wasn't a war tomorrow there wouldn't be a war. Yesterday people were saying that if there wasn't a war today it would be a bloody shame.'
So this afternoon a group of lucky people will be comfortably seated in the Persephone shop in Lamb's Conduit Street in London possibly debating the merits of those opening lines, entitled a Letter From London and dated 3 September 1939. They will then settle down to discuss the short stories that follow in Good Evening Mrs Craven : The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter- Downes.
This will all happen over tea and cake and surrounded by books and really I can see no good reason for us to be left out just because we might be hundreds or even thousands of miles and several continents distant.
Thanks to Karen who does this sort of thing so wonderfully well, we can all nip over to Cornflower and enjoy a virtual tea of our own today, we've decided virtual knitting's allowed while we chat too and we're going to try and make this a regular dovegreyreader - Cornflower joined-up blog day to coincide with those Persephone teas.
My introduction to Mollie has been quite recent, this my third of her books in the last month or so and I now slip into her writing with ease.
This selection of short stories, like Minnie's Room, ordered chronologically from 1939 to 1944 and thus enabling an identifiable progression through the war years.
This is the underbelly of war, the flip-side, a chance to see what lies beneath the reported heroics and gallantry, that blitz spirit with which the nation was so readily identified, yet often the reality was so very different.
Those who are actually enjoying the war, benefiting in some way from it all, for some indeed it is bringing certainty of employment and regular wages. There are those who are barely inconvenienced by it, the lights and shades of human relationships and those like the lonely spinsters who suddenly discover purpose and happiness in their lives. So many of them the women side-lined in the marriage market after the Great War and now finding they can be useful to someone.
Much of it is very funny too, Mollie has the wryest sense of humour and listening in on the conversation at Mrs Ramsey's Red Cross sewing parties is priceless. As the ladies handstitch pyjamas for the soldiers talk ranges far and wide and imaginations run riot as Mrs Ramsay announces the destination for this next parcel of comforts
'The Greeks!' said Mrs Peters suspiciously. 'Ow, what an original idea!' she held up the pair of trousers she was making and regarded them with a frown, as though meditating what it would be like to put one's feet up against a Greek.
The rest of the party looked dubiously at Mrs Ramsay. The idea of swathing Grecian torsos in good English winceyette was obviously difficult to digest right away.'
Poor Mrs Peters really can't get it out of her mind,
'Greeks!' said Mrs Peters, 'Well wait until I tell Daddy! He'll have a good laugh at me stitching away for the Greeks. Kind of little men aren't they?' She held up the trousers again. 'I suppose these things are going to fit them?'
The garments in question looked to Mrs Ramsay as though they would accommodate not only a Greek but a couple of Albanians too...'
The women demonstrate interesting conflicts of their own at these gatherings, a warfare of words that you would quite expect to escalate into a village-wide lifetime feud, yet things are always resolved amicably and they all leave the best of friends, nursing no hard feelings towards each other and perhaps a pertinent social reflection from Mollie on the peace-keeping capabilities of women that could be utilised in times of conflict.
War becomes the great leveller in Mollie's hands, reminding me of the bigger picture of this mixing of the social classes painted in another Persephone book, The Village by Marghanita Laski.
As the stories progress through the war years a certain weariness sets in and contrasts powerfully alongside an insatiable thirst for the latest news from the front and with it all emerges a deeper psychology, one that burrows beneath the surface and roots out those true feelings.
By 1944 the novelty has definitely worn off the resident evacuee family for Mrs Dudley and she's more than glad to see the back of them when they finally leave, but when approached by a desperate young mother and her baby for somewhere to stay Mrs Dudley's own reactions dismay her desperately.
Then there is the inevitability of post-war social change reflected not from the entrenched upper classes but from those lower down the scale who can't bear to let go of that master-servant bond. Mollie identifies a largely unrecognised mutual relationship, the servants, their sense of security along with their need to be needed.
How astutely this contrasts with the independent post-war Minnie of Minnie's Room desperate to make her escape.
Gregory Lestage's preface and afterword in this volume are both hugely informative,
'Women were in the wings as understudies in the theatre of war. They were the grievers, not the grieved; the absented, not the absent. Women were charged to keep things the same, men to change things.'
So what a wonderful collection, scattered with those astute observations that Mollie makes her own as a writer who, as Lestage points out, takes up the position of observer in preference to participant, making Good Evening Mrs Craven a fine scene-setting start as I approach this November's Remembrance Reading.
Now whatever you do, don't miss that delicious Cornflower tea.