Blitz Writing by Inez Holden

Born in the early 20th century, Inez Holden was a British author and bohemian socialite who became known as much for her cultural lifestyle as for her writing. (Esteemed writers such as HG Wells, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell and Anthony Powell could be listed amongst Holden’s many literary friends.)

During her lifetime, Holden published a range of work comprising seven novels, two collections of short stories and an observational diary, the latter covering the early years of WW2. Two of these works are included here: Night Shift, a novella set in a London factory during the Blitz; and It Was Different at the Time, the diary mentioned above. Together they provide a fascinating insight into the lives of ordinary, working-class people – many of them women – doing their best to support the war effort in Britain.

Night Shift is a wonderfully vivid piece of writing, alive with the sounds and rhythms of life in a busy factory producing camera parts for reconnaissance aircraft. The novella has a reportage feel, a strong sense of authenticity that stems from Holden’s closeness to this kind of working environment during the early years of WW2.

The novella’s narrator is unnamed, an omniscient presence who roves around the fictional factory, Braille’s, over the course of six days, observing the employees as they work through the night. The shifts feel long and monotonous, the only respite being an hour-long meal break at 1 am. Even then, it is often difficult for the workers – mostly women – to get any food due to a prolonged wait at the serving counter.

The workers often chat amongst themselves during shifts, mainly to relieve the boredom of the routine. In general, their talk consists of gossip, personal snippets, and the latest news on air-raids over the city, often revealing striking insights into the challenges of everyday life during the Blitz.

‘My husband didn’t want me to come here on nights,’ Mrs Chance said. ‘He wanted me to be at home, but he’s working up at a big ambulance station Tottenham way himself, so I don’t see why he should grumble. Still, he’ll be better pleased when I’m on the day shift. After all, we haven’t got the home we had. We used to have a big house, down Kilburn way it was; we let out some of the rooms and we had a good living, but it got bombed. The ceiling fell in on the piano. You never saw such a mess. We’re still there, but of course we can’t let the rooms now, so I came here…’ (p.10, Handheld Press)

There is a sense of social barriers being broken down by the impact of war, a feeling of all-being-in-it-together in spite of minor differences in prior social status. A new girl, Feather, has recently joined the factory; and even though her gracious speech and manners suggest a refined lifestyle, she is soon accepted by the broader group without any noticeable animosity or resentment.

Naturally, there are some tensions between the workers and the management, frequently revealing the inequalities between pay for women and their male counterparts. Promised bonuses fail to materialise; wage packets are often light – issues that leave workers feeling exploited and short-changed but with little power to fight back. (Many are not part of the Union which seems to be reserved for skilled workers rather than their semi-skilled colleagues.) Individual workers are reluctant to complain in isolation, fearing that they will lose their jobs – a concern only exacerbated when a young girl is dismissed and sent home in the middle of the night on the grounds of inefficiency.

Holden has a journalistic eye for detail, from her humorous observations on the minutiae of the working shift – e.g. the tea urns that always get mixed up, meaning nobody gets their tea quite the way they like it – to her poignant reflections on workers in the unit. In this scene, the narrator is observing two factory girls wearing trousers (both former Land Girls), who are promptly assigned the following nicknames: ‘Grey-pants’ and ‘Green-pants’.

They came from Folkestone, but they had been working on the land before taking the Government training course. The mannishness had a sort of sad innocence about it as if they had given up softness because they thought it would be of no use in a tough world. (p. 12)

Sound too plays a vital role in the novella, from the thrum and hissing of machines inside the workshop to the cacophony of noises filtering through from outside. The hum of aircraft overhead, the sound of shells bursting, the sirens from ambulances and fire engines – all act as regular reminders of the dangers of the Blitz.

By early morning, the workers are frequently drained – physically, mentally and emotionally – keen to return home where they can rest before another night shift begins.

The extremes of fatigue brought about by long hours in the workshop and air bombardment could make an individual into another person, a half-conscious creature removed a little way from the things which were happening. All through this night people had been killed, buried, suffocated, made homeless, burnt and trapped beneath buildings, but as soon as the All Clear sounded all those no longer concerned with active civil defence work went to their beds and slept. Tiredness took over. (p. 81) 

The novella is followed by It Was Different at the Time, a diary-based text that very much complements Holden’s earlier fictional work. The entries span from April 1938 to June 1941, documenting the author’s observations at certain points in time. In particular, Holden focuses on her roles in support of the war effort – initially as an auxiliary nurse in a suburban hospital and first-aid post, then as a worker in a government training centre. There is also a spell as an occasional broadcaster with the BBC.

Holden’s experiences as a nurse are particularly sobering, highlighting the suppression of imagination many such individuals must employ to counteract the emotional impact of the role.

All nurses are continually confronted by happenings of great horror, but this ghastliness is yet made endurable by a routine so exact that it can dull down suffering, pain, and death. So, in spite of everything around, the hospital seems like a large and closed place of safety, and a nurse’s life, in a sense, a very sheltered one. (p. 136) 

As with Night Shift, the diary is peppered with chatter – not only amongst the nurses with their talk of food, friendship and plans for upcoming time off, but amongst the patients too.

Her night work at a first-aid post in London brings Holden into contact with many of the city’s residents – ordinary, working-class people, heading towards air-raid shelters with their rugs and blankets tied up with string or bundled into prams to lessen the load. As Holden reflects, the sight of this parade is profoundly affecting, highlighting the grace and humanity of these individuals in a time of adversity.

The sight of this procession of people with their bundles of bedclothes at sundown in the London streets is deeply touching. Although one is struck by the force of misery, at the same time some of these people have a great dignity in misfortune, so that the humiliation is very suddenly shifted from the sufferer to the onlooker. (p.151)

When viewed overall, Blitz Writing offers an illuminating portrayal of grass-roots Londoners during the early years of WW2. It is by turns insightful, vivid, humorous and poignant, a wonderful account of life during wartime, particularly for working women.

This beautiful edition from Handheld Press comes with an excellent, comprehensive introduction by the editor and academic, Kristin Bluemel. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

23 thoughts on “Blitz Writing by Inez Holden

  1. Brian Joseph

    These sound like very worthwhile works. To this day, the social and personal effects of World War II still fascinate. The things that people experienced in this era seem occupy a special place in our cultural memory.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I agree. I find this period endlessly fascinating, perhaps on account of its impact on social change and our own history. My mother and her sister were young girls when the war broke out, just old enough to understand what was happening on the European stage. Even though they were living in Ireland at the time, I often think of them in relation to books like this.

  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review Jacqui. It sounds like the fact that the book was contemporary to events adds much to the narrative, and I really am keen to read it. I can’t understand why this one has been so neglected until Handheld picked it up – well done them! :D

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. I think you’d like it very much. It’s a world we probably don’t see very frequently, certain in terms of fiction. Ordinary working-class people, many of them women, toiling away in support of the war effort for (seemingly) very little recognition or monetary reward. You really get a sense of the factory being a hive of activity, alive with the thrum of machine and the chatter/gossip. Definitely recommended for anyone with an interest in our social history.

  3. heavenali

    I thought this was an excellent pairing. I particularly enjoyed the novella as it so brilliantly captures the sights and sounds of the factory, especially the voices of the workers. It’s a wonderful piece of writing.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, me too! I think I preferred the novella to the diary for exactly the same reasons you’ve described. The voices of the factory workers brought the story to life in such a striking and colourful way. It all felt very realistic, steeped in a sense of accuracy and authenticity.

  4. Lisa Hill

    This has some resonance for me: my grandmother had a three storey house in Kilburn, and it had bomb damage in the roof, still there when I was a little girl because the priority was to build replacement housing stock, not repair houses with what was, comparatively speaking, minor damage. It was still a decent sized hole in the roof though, and though as a small child I didn’t realise it, I now recognise that they were jolly lucky not to have had much more serious damage or lost the house altogether. I also remember there being vacant blocks when we went for walks to feed the ducks at Queen’s Park. There was still some rubble that was fun to climb over, which would have been houses that had to be demolished and still hadn’t been rebuilt.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Such striking memories of wartime London; what a close shave your grandmother and her family must have had there…it doesn’t bear thinking about too deeply.

      Have you read Rose Macaulay’s novel, The World My Wilderness? If not, I think you’d find it very powerful. It has some of the most evocative descriptions of bombed-out buildings in the capital that I’ve ever read.

      It can be easy for us to forget how much death and destruction some of our predecessors lived with on a near-daily basis, especially given the amount of time that has passed by since then. That’s why accounts like Inez Holden’s are so important; they give us an insight into the realities of that world, hopefully one we’ll never have to live through ourselves.

  5. Caroline

    This sounds so fascinating. What a great idea to put the novella and diary together. I can imagine what it must have sounded like. All that noise from inside and outside, as you describe it. Would have driven me bonkers. But what could they do?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Absolutely. In some respects, it was a step forward for women with the opening up of certain jobs and opportunities that had previously been the domain of their male counterparts. That said, the pay and working conditions probably left a lot to be desired. As you say, it must have been so difficult for them to work all night in that factory, not knowing if they would still have homes to go back to the next morning.

  6. 1streading

    This sounds like an interesting juxtaposition of fiction and nonfiction. I have to admit, this is a publisher I’ve not yet read despite being frequently tempted. Could it be there are too many great publishers out there?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is difficult to keep up with them all! Unsurprisingly, this book appealed to me because of the wartime setting. As I think you know by now, I’m often drawn to British fiction from this period, so the prospect of a novella and an accompanying diary was too good to resist!

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  9. Liz

    I loved the sound of this when Ali wrote about it, and am so pleased you enjoyed it too. It’s on my TBR list, and I am looking forward to reaching it!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It was Ali’s post that prompted me to read it! If you like this era, then it’s a sure-fire winner. Such an interesting insight into a world not often explored in the realms of fiction. Plus the addition of the diaries makes it all the more fascinating – almost synergistic in certain respects as there are common themes across the two.

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