Reviewed by Hayley Anderton
This is one of two recent releases from Handheld Press that cover aspects of wartime experience – in this case life in a huge munitions factory somewhere deep in the English countryside. The other book is Margaret Kennedy’s Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry (reviewed by Harriet here). Both are worth reading, as is the earlier collection of Inez Holden’s work, also published by Handheld, Blitz Writing.
Blitz Writing and Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry both cover the early days of the Second World War, Blitz Writing feels like more or less familiar ground, Where Stands A Wingèd Sentry less so to me for the way it examines Kennedy’s own fears and anger. There’s No Story There is another window onto a less familiar part of the landscape of wartime memory – one that isn’t made into films or Sunday night tv drama, and if it was much written about at the time has since been allowed to languish back into obscurity. The title is an obvious clue as to why this might have happened.
Inez Holden can be summarised as a socialite who turned into a socialist – it leaves out all the nuance of her career and experience, but both things are worth holding in mind about her. Holden also spent some part of the War working in a munition factory although it’s not clear how similar her experience would have been to the world she describes in There’s No Story There. It’s frustrating that much of what’s written about Holden is with reference to her relationship with others – notably George Orwell, Stevie Smith, H. G. Wells, and Anthony Powell. Fortunately, Lucy Scholes provides an excellent introduction here which provides a good bit of context within which to consider her.
It’s tempting to see There’s No Story There as being closer to memoir than fiction, but the more reading around I do the more I see it as fiction – it is a novel, and perhaps because of that far more compelling and immersive than Blitz Writing. Through multiple viewpoints we see the world of ‘Statevale’, a factory complex that covers seven miles of land and employs thirty thousand people. Workers are conscripted from across the country and include several who aren’t much fit for anything else. Some live locally and have families, others in hostels.
There’s something of the socialist utopia about it – a job and purpose for everybody, food, shelter, community – maybe a sense that from this experience a land fit for hero’s really could be built. There’s also recognition of the petty bureaucracies that make communal life a chore – irksome rules, organized activities and entertainments, lack of choice, and plenty of people anxious to gather power for themselves at the expense of others. The work is dangerous too – most of the rules are anything but petty when there’s the constant risk that an unwise movement with the wrong powder in hand could lead to a ‘blow’.
Most of the characters are working class, and maybe that’s unusual too. These people are the background and bit players in the firmly middle-class narratives that I’m more familiar with. It makes me wonder what was waiting for the man who lost a hand fighting in the Spanish Civil War, or Julian – suffering from PTSD, unable to talk, but content enough with the work assigned to him, when the War ended. There’s no sense of money in the background to help smooth their way when jobs are no longer provided by the state. Divorce wouldn’t be easy for the woman who finds her husband is a stranger she doesn’t much like on his 48 hour leave. How will the girls, away from their homes and villages for the first time in their lives fit back into their old patterns as well? It’s a book full of gentle questions along these lines.
Other things happen too. A popular Jewish foreman is stuck in his own personal world of paranoia seeing persecution where none is deliberately intended – but we know, Holden knew, it’s fairly based on his experience pre-war in the East end. There are scenes that have a mythic feel about them – a ‘blow’ in one of the workshops, a boiler room full of sleeping, naked, men waiting for their clothes to dry after a blizzard leaves them snowed in at work. There’s even the hint of a murder mystery at the end when various strands of the narrative are bought together in the device of a letter home.
Nothing about this book was precisely what I expected, all of it was much more than I could have hoped for. It’s haunting me in the nicest possible way – I can’t quite pin it down, so I keep thinking about it. The way Holden gives all of her characters a certain dignity, it’s quiet hope, the things it celebrates, the things it laughs at. It’s a book that really feels like a discovery.
Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.
Inez Holden, There’s No Story Here (Handheld, 2021). 978-1912766369, 231pp., paperback.
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