The Super Fun Kids' Graphic Novel Sale

The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, April 19th, 2005


London 1945: Life in the Debris of War

by Maureen Waller

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Wartime London is a great literary subject. The ravages were so terrible (pieces of children littered the bomb sites), so poignant (treasures such as the Guards' Chapel and the Great Synagogue lost, five million books destroyed in a single night in a bombing raid), and so surreal (walking back from lunch at Simpson's, an editor of the Evening Standard noticed that the blast from a V-1 flying bomb had stripped the leaves from the trees and replaced them with human flesh). Also, the sustained attack over five years on a great and civilized city provided ample scope for the usual mixture of cowardice and heroism, selfishness and altruism, fecklessness and pluck. And finally, so many sensitive and articulate people recorded and distilled their experiences there. Of course these include George Orwell ("The Lion and the Unicorn"), Anthony Powell (The Valley of Bones, The Soldier's Art, The Military Philosophers), Evelyn Waugh (Sword of Honour), Mollie Panter-Downes (London War Notes), Henry Green (Caught), Elizabeth Bowen (The Heat of the Day), Harold Nicolson (Diaries and Letters: The War Years), and Graham Greene (The End of the Affair). But hundreds of literate and well-spoken ordinary men and women -- clerks, housewives, doctors, social workers -- also wrote vivid, funny, moving, and stylish diaries and letters, or were interviewed during the war (in its efforts to keep citizens productive and healthy, officialdom collected information of unprecedented depth and range about their everyday lives). Although Waller isn't the first to exploit these sources specifically or this rich subject generally (London 1945 joins the ranks of such works as Philip Zeigler's London at War and Robert Hewison's Under Siege: Literary Life in London, 1939-1945), her 528-page book is at once abundantly and discerningly detailed (she aptly quotes a Walthamstow woman's description of the silent V-2s, successors of the droning V-1s, as "bombs with slippers on"), and her depiction of the daily fabric of wartime life in the capital is unrivaled. Moreover, Waller has used the last year of the war as her cynosure, an illuminating approach that allows her to show how the previous five years ruptured all of London life, from the cityscape to family relations to fashion. More important, it reveals not the familiar story of indomitable Londoners facing the Blitz but, rather, how the fervor of "their finest hour" modulated into a squalid and dispiriting routine, how defiance lapsed into snappishness, and how resilience gave way to exhaustion, cynicism, and not infrequently despair (one Croyden woman who gassed herself wrote in her suicide note simply: "The war lasted too long for me. I can't go on"). This is a sad book about a city staggering to victory.

Click here to subscribe
Special Atlantic Monthly subscription price for Powell's shoppers — subscribe today for only $19.95.

Atlantic Monthly places you at the leading edge of contemporary issues — plus the very best in fiction, poetry, travel, food and humor. Subscribe today and get 8 issues of the magazine delivered to you for only $19.95 — that's a savings of over $19 off the newsstand price.

To order at this special Powell's price click here.

  • back to top


Powell's City of Books is an independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, that fills a whole city block with more than a million new, used, and out of print books. Shop those shelves — plus literally millions more books, DVDs, and gifts — here at