Tag Archives: Handheld Press

Business as Usual by Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford

This is such a charming book, a wonderful novel in which a young woman sets out on her own, hoping to find her way in the world of work before getting married. First published in 1933, the novel is being reissued by Handheld Press (publication date: 23rd March) in a beautiful new edition complete with drawings by Ann Stafford, the illustrator in the writing partnership of Oliver and Stafford.

The novel focuses on twenty-seven-year-old Hilary Fane, who has just become engaged to Basil Rainford, a busy surgeon based in Edinburgh. To support herself in the year before marriage, Hilary sets off to find a temporary job in London, something she hopes will be relatively easy given her degree-level education and experience as a librarian. However, the search for work proves challenging and time-consuming, more so that one might anticipate for someone with Hilary’s qualifications. (Several employers appear to be looking for a ‘Woman of Personality’, although it is never quite clear what this really means in practice!) In time though, persistence pays off, and Hilary is offered the role of a clerk at Everyman’s department store on Oxford Street – something she dare not turn down even if the work itself sounds rather dull and boring.

A clerk: it sounds dreary, but I daren’t refuse. It may lead to something, after all. (I wonder how many people get themselves landed for incredible years by that hope and by being too scared afterwards to throw up one job and look for another?) Anyway, I took it. I may have been a fool. I know there’s precious little prospect of advancement unless one’s head and shoulders better than the other people. But if I am, and if someone who matters notices it in time, I shall have my chance. (p. 23)

The story is told through a series of letters – mostly from Hilary to her parents or Basil – coupled with the occasional interdepartmental memo from the Everyman’s store. In short, the letters chart Hilary’s progress in London, the highs and lows of working life and the practicalities of surviving on a lowly wage. What comes through so strongly here is the narrative voice, revealing Hilary to be bright, realistic, witty and self-deprecating; in other words, she is an absolute joy. While there is clearly a safety net at hand – returning home to Edinburgh is always an option – Hilary is determined to stick it out, if only to prove Basil wrong in his dismissal of her efforts as some kind of misguided folly.

At first, Hilary is tasked with writing address for labels for books to be sent out to the store’s customers, filling in for a girl who is recovering from appendicitis. In a lucky break, Hilary comes into contact with Mr Grant, one of the store’s directors, whom she promptly impresses with her initiative when resolving a customer issue. As a consequence, Mr Grant arranges for Hilary to be transferred to the Book Department where her skills might be better utilised as a member of the sales team. The actual recommending and selling of books comes naturally to Hilary, playing to her strengths of patience, determination and attentiveness. It’s just the mental arithmetic that lets her down –something she finds difficult to do in a hurry, especially when under pressure. Nevertheless, Hilary sticks with it, and a transfer to the Library soon follows.

It is here in the Library that Hilary really begins to come into her own, taking charge of Fiction C, the least important of Everyman’s subscription services in the hierarchy of plans. Through Hilary’s observations on these services, we see the petty snobberies and prejudices inherent in certain parts of society at the time, where an individual’s subscription plan becomes a direct reflection of their class and social status.

The best people don’t have Fiction C subscriptions, because they only cost 10/– a year and provide the copies that other people have spilt tea over or dropped in the bath. The titled or indolent send menials to Miss Rivington for Fiction A or to Miss Landry for A Select. All the A subscribers come under the Rational Reading scheme, but the Fiction C pariahs appear unobtrusively in person and carry their books away in leathercraft satchels or string bags. (p. 103)

It is also here where Hilary must negotiate the thorniest aspects of staff politics through her dealings with Miss Sparling, a woman who resents Hilary’s presence in the Library and the subsequent impact this creates. At the request of Mr Grant, Hilary is to review the library process and systems with a view to making recommendations for improvement, a project she carries out with great efficiency and success. One of her changes results in the introduction of a more democratic system for customers, negating the need for Fiction C subscribers to stand in a separate queue to their Fiction A and B counterparts – thereby making the process feel much more equitable and humane.

In time, Hilary progresses to the role of Assistant Staff Supervisor, a job she relishes for it plays to her excellent organisation skills. In a neat parallel, this rise through the ranks at Everyman’s is mirrored in other areas of life. As her career flourishes, Hilary moves from a basement room in a boarding house to more spacious flat – a place she furnishes with the support of a generous aunt. 

In terms of tone, the novel is shot through with some wonderful comic touches, from the somewhat pretentious interdepartmental memos, to Hilary’s refreshingly witty observations as she documents her experiences at Everyman’s.

Aren’t people odd? What happens to them the instant money leaves their hands? Sell your best friend a packet of biscuits or a toothbrush or a silk handkerchief or a library subscription, and the most angelic personality is immediately submerged by the obsession of Getting one’s Money’s Worth. I didn’t read through many files: it was too indecent. I went to quickly on to my pile of letters from fulminating Colonels in Bedford and Bath and Harrogate who complain that they got nothing but ‘pert novels by pups’, and the women who are ‘quite at a loss to understand…’ (p. 129)

Throughout the book, the story touches on various aspects of working e.g. adapting to change, office politics, managing finances, and supporting colleagues – at one point, Hilary helps a young member of staff who must deal with an unexpected and unwanted pregnancy, highlighting once again the societal attitudes of the day.

Alongside Hilary’s adventures, the novel also offers a marvellous insight into the world of retail in the 1930s. The day-to-day workings of a busy department store are lovingly brought to life in a way that feels both charming and authentic.

Overall, this is an absolutely delightful novel, likely to appeal to fans of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, The Diary of a Provincial Lady and 84 Charing Cross. Very highly recommended indeed, particularly for readers interested in British social history. 

Business as Usual is published by Handheld Press, my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a reading copy.  

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.