This is a collection of two longer pieces concerning the 1940s in England. The first, Night Shift, is a novella from 1941 and it conveys the hum-drum lot of a band of people working in a factory that had to expand to round-the-clock operations for the war effort. The women spend their time filing, boring and whatnotting bits of metal that will eventually become frames and components for spy planes’ cameras. Over the course of the week we spend in their company, we see the drudge of the work as well as the banter they have; one mistakes the term “co-operate” – “I thought that was a word for going with a feller” – and later declares herself too out of sorts to work out if she’s officially fed up or not. But the piece is a little naively written, however, with the first person singular narrator drifting out too much too often, and a lot of the piece being concerned with the boredom of the job does kind of present its own obvious problems. Although are these people really that far from drama – after all, there is a war on?
The second piece is billed as an essay, although it features in its diary-style writing much of the same anecdotal approach. It Was Different At the Time has our author become a Red Cross nurse, with duties ranging from casualty to other war postings. She reports on the patients, and indeed the build-up to the outbreak of war, with a very socially minded eye, discussing costumes and manners as much as actual events. So while we do learn a great deal about the wartime habit of giving your dog pocket money each week, we don’t really get a clear picture of the Blitz; rather we gain the minutiae that the writer found relevant and comment-worthy at the time.
The introduction to this reprint tells us of the virtues of this under-explored author, but I didn’t find too much to grab. She started out as almost a deb, but became a penniless author, engaged with the social changes the war was causing. And that’s where this book will succeed, for it will be of academic interest to those interested in wartime class attitudes, the employment of women (many of whom were having to shun unionisation and the living wage of the day), documentary fiction and so on. For the general reader, these snapshots do bring life to those days, but only episodically.
John Lloyd 3/4
Blitz Writing by Inez Holden
Handheld Press 9781912766062 pbk May 2019