by Inez Holden
The latest title from Handheld Press combines two short works by early 20th-century writer Holden – the novella Night Shift and her war-time diaries previously published as It Was Different at the Time. Together, they are a record of life in London during the Blitz the like of which I have never read before.
Night Shift is about workers at a London factory making camera parts for war planes during a week in the middle of the Blitz. They are mostly women, mostly working class and are just getting on with daily (or rather, nightly) life. The war is almost in the background but at the same time it’s ever-present. There’s lots of talk about the Home Guard and volunteers. Sometimes they’re late to work because buses can’t get through the rubble. They hear air-raid sirens and bombs but keep on working.
“The thump-hum-drum of the machinery was only the foundation of noise. From time to time there was also the sudden violent hissing of the stream jets which were used for cleaning out the bits of work, and the clattering sound of someone dropping or tripping over some castings…From outside there came to us the air-raid orchestra of airplane hum, anti-aircraft shell bursts, ambulance and fire bells. Sometimes bomb concussion caused the floor to give a sudden shiver.”
There are none of the usual tropes of Second World War fiction – no sad telegrams, no talk about relatives off fighting, no rosy memories of life before the war. Instead, the (mostly) women discuss their love lives, whether their pay packets are correct, other jobs they’ve had. Though Holden wasn’t herself working class, the conversations and situations she describes feel realistic. That said, the first-person narrator, who is supposedly one of the working class women, didn’t feel quite so authentic – it felt like a middle-class journalist recording their experiences (which, after all, it effectively is).
There are some touching and upsetting moments in Night Shift, but it was actually Holden’s diaries that made me feel genuinely sad. I think that journalism is where her true talents lay. It surprised me to read about dinner parties in 1938 where they discussed the inevitability of not only war, but of aerial bombing and blackouts. It surprised me that months before war had been declared, women in the UK were training as volunteer nurses and ambulance drivers. Holden’s description of an Oswald Moseley meeting is chilling.
Once the war has begun, it immediately becomes matter-of-fact. Holden volunteers for the Red Cross in addition to her journalism work and describes in great detail the people she meets at the hospital, at First Aid posts and just walking down the street. She is good at picking out funny or interesting things that people say, but she doesn’t skip the bad stuff that’s happening. Whether it’s an aside about giving patients “the illusion of companionship” or the destruction of her flat in a bombing raid, the horrors of war are all here. But none of these people are soldiers. It’s a perspective we so rarely experience and an important one.
“L told me that she has some refugees staying with her. They had been got out of a concentration camp. They knew they were completely secure in her house, and all their troubles of that kind were over, but it was just the sense of being able to relax that made it possible for them to react at last against the horrors they had been through, resisted at the time in the only possible way, through suppression of imagination…I do not think that bombardment from the air, violent and frightening as it can be, compares in any way to the torture inflicted by one individual on another.”
Something I like about both halves of the book is the proof they provide of how international a city London has always been. Holden mentions people of all races and nationalities living their daily lives alongside her. There are Indian doctors, refugees from Poland and Austria and Spain, neighbours with broad Caribbean accents. So often historical dramas about Britain in the Second World War depict a homogenous white populace and that just isn’t an accurate reflection, particularly not of London.
I also came to like the way Holden’s life straddled multiple worlds, moving between friends’ country houses at weekends, and a small flat and cramped London buses during the week. Her fellow volunteers are mostly working class and she shows awareness that her own need to earn a living is rather different from theirs. She is sent on assignment to the BBC’s place in the country, while some of the women she has met are struggling to earn enough in factories to pay rent and bills. When she is bombed out of her home in October 1940, no less a person than HG Wells offers her the use of a mews flat at the end of his garden. (This book’s introduction by Kristin Bluemel says Holden was very upset at being thrown out by Wells in 1941, but in fairness her own diary records that the original offer was for “a few weeks”.)
This book isn’t perfect – through no fault of Holden’s or Handheld Press. I get the impression that the original volumes were rushed to publication with minimal editing and both could have done with a little intervention. The narrative voice of Night Shift didn’t feel consistent and the story concentrates a little too much on the character Feather – a Holden stand-in whose middle-class status keeps her slightly apart from her fellow workers. It Was Different at the Time has a rather long section about her nursing training that feels like it was intended as a standalone essay. It’s very well written but its length overwhelms the rest of the diaries.
But this isn’t merely an important historical record. Holden was a good observant writer with a social conscience. I suppose my true reaction can be summed up in that I didn’t want the book to end where it did. I would love to read more of Holden’s diaries and journalism, and I fully support publishers like Handheld rescuing these works from obscurity.
Night Shift published 1941 by John Lane, Bodley Head.
It Was Different at the Time published 1943 by John Lane, Bodley Head.
This compilation published 30 May 2019 by Handheld Press.
Source: This book was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.