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The workers make shells
Inez Holden Handheld Press, £12.99
INEZ Holden is one of those cruelly forgotten figures of 20th-century British literature, a writer who tasted brief success before being cast off into obscurity. Born in Warwickshire to a gentry family in 1903, she moved to London where she immersed herself in the bohemian world of Bright Young Things. She made many artistic connections – she modelled for Augustus John, worked alongside Evelyn Waugh and was a friend (and lover) of George Orwell – embraced socialism and earned a living as both a novelist and a journalist. However, by the time of her death in 1974, she had faded from view, her name barely known, her books out of print.
Two years ago, Handheld Press, an independent publisher specialising in long-neglected books, launched a literary salvage operation by reissuing two of Holden’s short works in one volume. Blitz Writing comprised It was Different at the Time, an account of Holden’s life from 1938 to 1941, and Night Shift, a novella which drew on her wartime experience working in an aircraft factory.
Now, three years on, comes a companion piece to that novella. Originally published in 1944,
There’s No Story There is a richly absorbing novel about conscripted workers at a huge factory in the north of England. Holden’s characters in Night Shift produced camera parts for warplanes; in this book there is more at stake, for the workers at Statevale make bombs and shells. Careless talk might cost lives across the home front but in this munitions factory it is careless movements which prove fatal.
Holden opens with a horde of workers arriving for their morning shift. “The cloud of humanity approached the first factory gates and broke up into individuals.” She then follows a select few as they go about their duties. As she jumps from one to the other, she highlights their contribution, relays their discussions and taps into their thoughts and emotions. A vivid composite picture takes shape, depicting not only collective effort but also personal struggles, hopes and fears.
We meet characters of all stripes. Linnet grafts in the detonator workshop while counting down the hours until she can be reunited with her husband Willie, who is due back soon on home leave. Gluckstein, the overseer of a big bomb group, is plagued by recollections of antiSemitic violence carried out by “Mosley’s men” in London. Doran, a“One-Man-Mass-Observation Centre ”, wanders the factory with his notebook out, jotting down choice snippets from overheard conversations in the name of social research.
Some of the characters in senior positions provide comic moments. Jameson, the factory’s officious police inspector, gets a nasty shock when his random stop-and-search policy backfires on him; and security chief Captain Quantock is surprised when “the very distinguished personage” whose visit he is organising turns out to be not King George but Lancashire funny-man George King.
As the narrative unfolds, we come to see the characters in new lights and from different angles. The one we get to know most intimately is Julian, a “truck-man” rendered mute by PTSD, who now “thought in words” and “talked in silence”. Holden allows that silence to speak volumes, amplifying both Julian’s trauma and his desire to be heard.
Whether with dialogue on the factory floor or streams of consciousness in Julian’s head, Holden captivates her reader. No single protagonist emerges to steer the proceedings but the snapshot portraits and potted histories of the rotating cast members add up to a satisfying whole.
This book also includes three of Holden’s stories about wartime life. They show that she could achieve remarkable results with short-form fiction as well as long. With luck, more of her lost-and-found work will see the light of day.