Are some people not interesting enough to write about? Perhaps in the 1940s working people were not thought to have interesting lives. Certainly many of the best known wartime novels concern people of the middle class: Mrs Minever and Mollie Panter-Downes for example. Inez Holden took a more democratic view, and her short novels, Night Shift (1941) and There’s No Story There (1944), are a direct challenge to that attitude. There’s No Story There is set in a huge munitions factory, somewhere in the north. It focuses on the people, the 30,000 people who work in Statevale.
The focus is not so much on a story but on the individuals who live and work in Statevale. There is a murder and an industrial accident, a visit by a famous person, a snowstorm, a short reunion of a couple divided by the war and there is the relentless and very dangerous work.
There’s No Story There was first published in 1944 and has been reissued in a handsome edition by Handheld Press in March 2021. My thanks to Handheld Press for my copy.
There’s No Story There
The novel begins with a new shift arriving at the factory. Some workers live or are billeted locally, most live in the hostels provided. They arrive in buses and must prepare thoroughly for work by going through a series of checks and clothing changes.
The cloud of humanity approached the first factory gates and broke up into individuals. (3)
We start then with individuals. And to make the point that we are not looking at an amorphous crowd, Inez Holden, continues
They walked in single file. People from the Potteries, volunteers of the first war year; new conscripts, old and young; housewives from the villages; women from the towns; from Scotland and Ireland; men just discharged from the Army and invalids of long-time unemployment; ex-miners, greengrocers, builders, bakers, men from the south, from the north, middle-aged men wounded in the last war, young men soon to be called up and old casual labourers. The sons of preachers; the daughters of dockers, the children of crofters. (3)
And she begins to name some of them: Old Charlie, Gluckstein, Jameson, Julian, Linnet, Geoffrey Doran and so on.
They move through the inspection gate, leave their possessions in the contraband hut, change their clothes in the shifting house, and emerge wearing a white suit with a white conical hat and white soft sneaker shoes. After a cup of tea in the canteen they apply protective white cream and powder to their faces. They emerge like figures in a sci-fi movie into the Danger Area, set out like a town, with street signs, a train and bus service and very few people visible, for the workshops are submerged.
Having left the ordinary trappings of human appearance behind them, the reader enters this alien world alongside the workers as they begin their shifts. For example Julian began the war in a ship, but it was torpedoed and he now suffers from mutism. But his inner voice is never quiet, ‘speaking in silence’, as he carefully moves materials between the sheds. Linnet is thinking about her husband Willie, who is due some leave. Others are planning for the King’s visit. At the end of the shift some workers go to the pub, others return to their quarters and entertain themselves, play chess or cards, or write letters.
One night it begins to snow and the shift up at the factory is snowed in. People take on new roles, providing tea, shifting snow from the railway, organising entertainment. Being snowed in provided one of the few moments when the workers openly talk about what the factory is producing.
‘It was funny to-night in the canteen when Maggie and Miss Robinson were serving tea together. […] Funny wasn’t it , all those people singing and working together – the Blue shift and the White, Labour Officers, operatives, canteen workers and all. They were all laughing and seemed happy. Funny when you think what we are all here for, and how we’re only making things to kill people. It don’t seem right do it?’ (139)
More stories are told: we learn how the boiler man lost his hand; of the paranoia Gluckstein has of discrimination against Jews; of the disappointing visit by Linnet’s husband, a stranger for the war has taken the couple in such different directions; of the secret held close by the self-important security chief, which is known by everyone; the abuse of power by the gate policeman and the accident that kills one of the workers.
Holden is challenging the idea that the working people have nothing interesting about them. On the contrary they are individuals, willing, resourceful and exploited. The title appears on the final page. A former journalist is asked why she doesn’t write about Statevale. ‘There’s no story there,’ she replies. We, who have read thirteen chapters, know otherwise.
What makes this novel so successful is Inez Holden’s powers of observation, her ability to write believable dialogue and her ability to use all the senses in describing Statevale.
I really enjoyed this volume. Although there is no strong narrative, there is plenty to consider, and there is a bonus of three short stories included in this volume. The longest, Musical Chairman, makes the point that real life can be more absorbing than the movies.
The introduction by Lucy Scholes is very helpful in placing Inez Holden in the context of the literary world of 1920-50. More detail, especially of Inez Holden’s life and milieu can be found in a Paris Review article, also written by Lucy Scholes.
Night Shift was reviewed on this blog along with two other books about the Second World War, in November 2019.
There’s No Story There: wartime writing, 1944-45 by Inez Holden, first published in 1944 and reissued byHandheld Press in March 2021. 231pp