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There’s No Story There by Inez Holden reissued by Handheld Press tells the little told stories of men and women workers during World War Two. Like the novella and nonfiction writing published in Night Shift and It Was Different at the Time the two texts in the book Blitz Writing– which I read a couple of years ago – Holden really put her journalistic skills to good use in the depiction of working lives. There is a wonderful sense of all of life being here – brought together from all walks of life.

“The morning shift was going through the first inspection. The men filed through on the left, the women on the right. They walked in single file. People from the Potteries; volunteers of the first war year; new conscripts, old and young; housewives from the villages; women from the towns; from Scotland and Ireland; men just discharged from the Army and invalids of long-time unemployment; ex-miners, greengrocers, builders, bakers, men from the south, from the north, middle-aged men wounded in the last war, young men soon to be called up and old casual labourers. The sons of preachers; the daughters of dockers; the children of crofters.”

This novel is about the lives of conscripted workers at Stalevale, an enormous rural munitions factory, somewhere in the English countryside. Stalevale is quite vast – almost a mini town – rows of large sheds, each with its own specific purpose, neatly laid pathways between. Here the conscripted men and women, many of them from the Potteries and the North, make the shells and bombs for use in the war. It’s perilous work, and no one takes any chances with the handling of such high explosives.

There is no plot as such, this is a novel about a way of life at an extraordinary period in our history. A time in which people had to set aside their normal lives, living away from their homes and families. Here thousands of workers come together their lives immediately altered by the rules, the shift patterns, and the communal living. There is a sense of people being outside of their normal sphere – all while belonging to a large community all working together. It must have been quite an intimidating experience to arrive for the first time – not knowing exactly what lay ahead.

“The train journey – perhaps the first – the crowded station, the factory town and the great grey hostel buildings, the work itself, carried out in silent isolated groups, never more than twenty workers in one semi-underground shed, never less than two hundred in the canteen at break-time, sometimes six hundred in the hostel at meal-times, and always seven thousand going out or coming in on shift. The journey herd, the hostel herd, the workshop herd – where even the movements of the work were disciplined down to a slow rhythm – all added to the fear and sense of isolation from the home herd.”

Stalevale is a place of strict order – necessarily so – long hours and shift work, living with former strangers in a hostel when not working. Although very much a novel – There’s No Story There is written in a documentary style – Holden’s intention clearly to bring the people of this place to life – a realistic portrayal of a munitions factory and its workers. The workers dress in special asbestos suits, covering their faces with layers of cream and powder to protect them from the dangerous substances they are working with. Inspections cause tension, as the inspector chooses to stop as if by random one person in every two hundred to check their identities.

Naturally there are various characters who we get to know throughout the course of the novel. With a practised ear Holden recreates their conversations, showing the private everyday worries and preoccupations of these ordinary men and women who were doing some quite extraordinary work. It is quite shocking when a dreadful accident does occur, how almost routinely it is treated – it’s a common enough event for everyone to know exactly what to do, and be anxious to nip any gossip in the bud.

The perspective moves continually from one worker to the next. We meet Julian, the life of the factory viewed through his eyes, as he silently goes about his day, narrating his experiences internally – his mutism caused by what today we would recognise as PTSD. Gluckstein is tormented meanwhile by his memories of the anti-Semitism he experienced in London. Young Linnet has not been married all that long, she is excited that her husband will be arriving on forty-eight hours leave – when she will move temporarily into the married quarters with him. She takes the opportunity to pick some wildflowers growing nearby to brighten up their room. Geoffrey Doran the Time and Motion man writes obsessively in his notebook – he is an astute observer of all that happens – he eavesdrops on the chatter around him, becoming something of a figure of fun, as he begins to start his own private mass observation record. One woman is discovered inventing stories about her ‘friend’ – there’s some amusing embarrassment over the identity of a special visitor to the factory – points of interest in an otherwise tedious, grinding routine.

There’s No Story There is an extraordinary portrayal of people rarely found in fiction – it is surely a must for anyone interested in this period of history and in the life of ordinary workers in particular.

After the novel this volume contains three wartime short stories – which I don’t have time or space to write about here – but are well worth reading too. It’s always nice to get a bit more in a book I feel.

I would be fascinated to read more by Inez Holden, but currently the rest of her novels remain out of print.

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With thanks to Handheld Press for the review copy

The two texts contained in Blitz Writing; Night Shift and It was Different at the Time, are back in print after many years thanks to Handheld Press. First published in 1941 and 1943 respectively, they provide an extraordinary portrait of the war years in Britain. Ordinary people, in factories and hospitals, in the streets and rooming houses of a Britain living through extraordinary times. The first text; Night Shift is a novella – running to 85 pages. The second, later text, a memoir beginning in 1938, was originally intended to be part of a joint project with George Orwell. Orwell in the end was unable to contribute, so instead we are left with Inez Holden’s intimate and accessible account of the period just before the war and the first two years of a conflict that had yet to end when the book was first published.

Inez Holden might not be a familiar name to us today – however in her day she was a well known writer of novels and short stories. According to Kristin Bluemel in her introduction to this edition, Holden was known as much for her flamboyant lifestyle and friendship with notable figures like Anthony Powell, HG Wells, Evelyn Waugh, and George Orwell, as she was for her literary output. However, she published seven novels, two story collections and a wartime diary.

Night Shift is a novella about factory workers. Holden’s largely working-class characters have been conscripted into Braille’s; a London factory, making camera parts for reconnaissance aeroplanes. An unnamed narrator introduces us to the night shift workers and the world they inhabit. Here is the noise of the factory machinery, a constant dull thump, distantly in the background the sound of air raids going on above them. A new girl has recently started at the factory, soon she is nicknamed Feather – Sid; one of the men in white coats is second in charge, he is frequently called upon to assist with problems with the machinery. Feather is soon an established member of the team; indulging in gossip and the inane chatter of workers brought together for long hours of tedious routine.

“At one minute to one most of the workers had gathered round the notice board to clock out for the night meal. They stood for a moment like a group waiting to be photographed. Just before the minute hand jerked up to the appointed hour they all reached out towards the rack holding their hour cards on which their names and numbers were written. One by one they dropped the cards into the clocking-in mouth, knocked in the knob, like a blow to the front teeth, and taking out the cards put them back into the rack.”

Conversations always run along similar lines, the hope of more money – whether ‘he’ is overhead that night – whether the second part of the night – after the hour long meal break, provided by Ma in the canteen has been eaten – goes faster or not. The voices are wonderful, realistic and full of humour and pathos. This is a world rarely portrayed in fiction – and I loved being part of it.

The second text is Holden’s memoir of the years 1938-1941 begins around the time of the Munich agreement – talk of war is everywhere, and Inez Holden always knew it would come.

“Personally I have never doubted during these last years that we should be at war very soon, but now that seems as if it will break out within a few days I find a certain reluctance to accept something which I already knew must happen. I find the same attitude in several of my friends. They would be appalled at the possibility of a second sell-out – as at the time of Munich – but there is just this difficulty of making the mental jump from even phoney-peace to the start of slaughter near us.”

In this memoir Holden gives us her own personal perspective of the war and the days leading up to it. The entries depict Holden’s wartime service in hospitals and at a government training centre, as a BBC broadcaster, a fire watcher and guest at a BBC centre called ‘Hogsnorton’. 

Holden recounts stories of patients she came across in the hospital – like the man, who was quite the celebrity on the ward for the number of times he had ‘gone down’ (to the operating theatre). Additionally, Holden shows us the normality of life going on away from the busy hospital wards, the streets full of people despite the threat of raids, cinemas showing slapstick comedy, while elsewhere the stretcher bearers and rescue workers carry out their work, courageously enduring long hours, bombardment and danger as they assist the people of a city in wartime.

“There were air raids every night now. They start about seven o’clock. We know all the sounds very well. A very familiar sound is a particular kind of crackling after the fall of incendiary bombs. We go out then and put the fires out with stirrup pumps and sand.”

In these two texts Inez Holden shows the London under bombardment that she herself was living through at the time. There is some overlap in time with the two texts, together they examine a city and its people during the blitz, beautifully written, vivid and compelling.

Blitz Writing was another read for the Librarything ‘reading the 1940s’ project – though it fitted more into last month’s theme of work than this month’s food theme.

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