There’s No Story There by Inez Holden

There is a wonderful note of irony in the title of Inez Holden’s 1944 novel, There’s No Story There, recently reissued in a beautiful edition by Handheld Press (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy). The book is set in Statevale, an enormous munitions factory situated in the English countryside during WW2. While many writers might have overlooked the lives of ordinary working people when searching for inspiration, Holden took a different view. By drawing on her socialist values and journalistic experience, Holden could see the interesting in the everyday. Consequently, she used the working environment as a suitable canvas for her fiction, illuminating some fascinating stories of day-to-day life.

There’s No Story There is an excellent novel – by turns striking, poignant, funny and insightful. Very highly recommended for anyone interested in this period of British fiction.

Statevale – the fictional munitions factory in Holden’s novel – is a vast operation, ‘seven miles round’ and encompassing 30,000 workers, the majority of whom are divided into three shifts: Red, White and Blue. Many of the conscripted workers – particularly those coming from outside the immediate area – are housed in the Statevale Hostel. This gives the complex something of a community feel, despite the undeniable sense of isolation some workers experience after being separated from their former homes.

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. (p. 46)

With the workers at Statevale engaged in the manufacture of artillery shells and bombs via hazardous procedures, the potential for accidental ‘blows’ (i.e. explosions) is ever-present – a fear that rumbles away for some of the employees, particularly those with previous experience of war. Julian feels it very acutely, which becomes increasingly apparent as the novel unfolds. Clearly experiencing PTSD following his discharge from the army, Julian is virtually mute, unable to speak aloud while the words maintain an ongoing commentary in his head.

Julian looked up at the top layer of boxes, and as he did so his death-wish overwhelmed him again.

‘Supposing one of them tipped over and fell to the ground? What would happen – well, you know! A small speck of powder spilled, some sort of friction, what they call a “blow”, and I should disappear instantly. (p. 15)

Through Holden’s immense skill in shifting the viewpoint from one worker to the next, we are able to build up a detailed picture of life inside the munitions base over the course of the book. Workers must dress in asbestos suits, wear rubber-soled shoes on their feet, and cover their faces with special cream and powder to protect themselves while on the job. Procedures are conducted slowly and meticulously to minimise the potential for friction – with so many hazardous explosives around, any sparks or points of ignition must be avoided at all costs, otherwise the consequences could be fatal. As readers, we also gain a real sense of the less obvious sources of danger when working in such an operation – for instance, the insidious threat from boredom, which stems from the monotony of performing highly repetitive tasks.  

‘…It’s not so bad at this time of the day, but towards the end of the shift that awful mood of monotony comes creeping over me as certain sure as slow paralysis. Boredom isn’t a negative thing as people say; it’s an active kind of poison, a malady that drags you down with it and into a deep morass where treacled-up time ticks slowly over you. It’s not carelessness, but monotony that’s the enemy of safety and industry.’ (p. 17)

In addition to offering us this high-level overview of the factory operations, Holden makes terrific use of specific characters to zoom in on some of the personal stories. Individuals such as Inspector Jameson, the pedantic police supervisor with control-freak tendencies; Ysabette Jones, a deluded woman who invents things about her ‘friend’, the Group Captain; and Geoffrey Doran, the Time and Motion man who eavesdrops on everyone, meticulously conducting his own Mass Observation study as a result. There is a particularly amusing moment towards the end of the novel when we discover that Doran has lost his precious notebook, the one containing all his notes of conversations, behaviours and occurrences. Doran himself is the person under observation during his frantic search for the journal, as a ‘mass of workers’ stops to watch him scrabbling away at the snow in sheer desperation.

Inevitably, various tensions emerge between certain groups of workers, perhaps most notably when Inspector Jameson randomly stops one in every 200 employees for further questioning when issuing their new security passes. It’s another pointless activity designed to demonstrate this official’s power over the little people while putting individuals on the back foot. There are rivalries too between the three groups of shift workers, albeit more friendly in nature. By contrast, the ‘Super’ – a very clever chemist, by all accounts – is level-headed and fair, commanding respect and authority when it’s due.

Interestingly, a heavy snowfall heralds the one instance in the narrative when barriers of class and status between various groups seem to disappear. Great swathes of workers are snowed-in for a couple of nights, prompting them to bed down and make the best of it on site. It’s a very touching episode with workers, overseers and managers all mucking in to help with the necessary tasks.

Most of the men and girls said they’d work till the first break. Ambulances came down to the shifting house with blankets. Food vans came up with pies and chips, steamed puddings, and custards. The canteen supervisor said, ‘My, we’re grand to-night, chips and that. The girls will be pleased. Fine feed they’ll have, first break.’ (p. 133)

As a novel, There’s No Story Here feels grounded in authenticity with Holden clearly demonstrating her keen ear for dialogue and a sharp eye for detail. The book is peppered with memorable images, vividly portrayed.

The canteen girls, with their frivolous heads and hard high heels, gave the impression of a group of pretty centaurs handing out suppers in tune to hoof sounds on kitchen tiles. (p. 41)

In some respects, this is a novel of vignettes, little snapshots of life inside the munitions factory complex. Workers come and go; the day-to-day functions continue as scheduled. Nevertheless, every now and again something dramatic happens to disrupt the equilibrium, reminding us that we are only ever a few steps away from potential catastrophe. There are real notes of concern and poignancy here, particularly once we realise that some of these workers would struggle to secure roles elsewhere.

Holden remains mindful of balancing the darker sides of the factory environment with lighter moments, all in a way that feels natural and realistic. The ongoing banter between workers provides significant humour – as does a much-anticipated visit from the King, which doesn’t quite live up to expectations! There is also a brilliant note of ambiguity about the novel’s ending – a very cleverly handled passage relayed through a letter.

In summary, then, this is a fascinating insight into a vital wartime industry, skilfully encompassing the myriad of emotions this world evokes. Holden conveys this story with her characteristic blend of humour, poignancy and compassion, bringing the working environment to life through vivid dialogue and detail. (You can read my thoughts Holden’s earlier novella Nightshift here – also highly recommended.)   

25 thoughts on “There’s No Story There by Inez Holden

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Great review as always, Jacqui. Handheld’s releases do often focus on war-related books (one of the Macaulays I’ve read springs to mind), but I haven’t yet read Holden. This does sound impressive, both from the point of view of storytelling, and also capturing life at a particular time. I’ve said recently a few times that I think fiction from e.g. WW2 can give so much more in terms of capturing what life was really like in those times. And by focusing on the lives of ordinary people, as this one does, you can really get the sense of what it felt like to live through troubling events. I wonder if there will be the equivalent about the pandemic in the future?

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, yes, yes to all of this! And this is the best kind of fiction because it feels grounded in authenticity. You really get the sense that Holden understood what it was like to do this type of work – the monotony of routine tasks, the causes of friction between workers and certain types of managers, and (naturally) the camaraderie / banter that lightened the mood. I think she spent some time working in an aircraft factory herself, so that must have given her a good feel for the territory.

      As for the pandemic, I’m sure there will be quite a lot in the way of fiction that taps into people’s experiences. There’s a ‘lockdown’ novel on the way from Sarah Moss — The Fell. I believe it’s called — which is due later this year…and Sarah Hall’s ‘Burntcoat’ may well be another. We’ll have to wait and see…

  2. buriedinprint

    I love stories about munitions work and have done some reading and research on the work done in Toronto during WWII; this would be a great companion to that so I’m hoping the library adds it to their burgeoning collection of Handheld’s releases. Thanks for tempting me with another.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, that’s excellent! It does appear to be a fascinating subject – well, I’m saying that from the insights we gain through Holden’s fiction. Quite a dangerous working environment too, as we see through this book. I do hope you’re able to get hold of a copy through the library. Maybe you can put in a purchase request if they don’t have it in stock…

  3. heavenali

    This sounds fascinating, I read another Inez Holden book reissued by Handheld, a mix of fiction and non fiction, and had meant to buy this. I love novels about work and the war period and this combines both. It’s easy to forget how dangerous work in a munitions factory was. This is definitely an area of the war story that is less well explored. Definitely one for my list.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’ll love this, Ali, I’m sure! It’s absolutely up your street – just full of the day-to-day human stories that were taking place during the war. Holden reminds me a little of Mollie Panter-Downes in this respect, although MPD’s focus was more weighted towards the middle classes. Holden feels more interested in ordinary working folk (e.g. factory workers as opposed housewives), although from a reader’s perspective there’s definitely room for both!

  4. Jane

    Inez Holden is another author I need to start reading and this sounds excellent, the everyday is so interesting isn’t it?

  5. madamebibilophile

    This sounds fascinating and such an original approach. I just saw something on TV recently about the canary girls – I can’t imagine doing such dangerous and risky work. It’s extraordinary.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I just looked that phrase up, and it’s very much in line with some of the work Holden explores here. You’d like this, I think. It might even fit with your novella project, if you’re planning to do it again this year!

  6. Julé Cunningham

    Unfortunately I have to admit that I’m a bit burnt out on WWII books at the moment, but this is one that has caught my eye. The setting, the people involved, and the perspective that Holden writes from, are all different enough to spark interest.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I can understand that! There’s only so much of certain type of literature one can take, especially in the midst of a pandemic when others aspects of our lives remain somewhat restricted. It’s a good one to keep in mind for whenever you’re in the mood to return to wartime fiction – as you say, the perspective that Holden brings to this world makes it feel so alive and realistic.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes! And these Handheld Press releases come with such informative introductions about the authors. Holden had been part of the Bright Young People’s set in the 1920s and ’30s before she changed direction into the world of gritty social realism during the war. Quite a fascinating story in itself…

  7. Grier

    This book sounds fascinating. I never seem to tire of WWII homefront novels and the factory aspect of this title is appealing. I have another of Holden’s books from Handheld Press to read and will certainly look for this one.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, same here. I can’t get enough of these homefront experiences, be they fictional or otherwise. I think you’ll enjoy Holden’s Blitz Writing, maybe with this one as a follow-on read for the future. :)

  8. jenniferbeworr

    It’s interesting how much response there is to this post. It is to your usual high standard. Whether I ever read the book or not, I’m moved by the review. The sense one gets of so many people clustered in that overwhelming closed sky of a space. Then there is that scene of heavy snowfall which has me fascinated. There is a typo where you write making ‘fiction’ when you mean friction, which may be an interesting Freudian slip?! Well done, as ever and thank you.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, thank you for pointing out that typo – now fixed!

      Yes, it’s a very moving book – a multitude of small stories and vignettes, but they add up to something larger, augmented by the scale of the factory itself. Well worth looking out for if it passes your way.

  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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