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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.