#BookReview Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It Was Different At The Time by Inez Holden @KateHandheld

Blitz WritingAbout the Book

Emerging out of the 1940–1941 London Blitz, the drama of these two short works, a novella and a memoir, comes from the courage and endurance of ordinary people met in the factories, streets and lodging houses of a city under bombardment.

Inez Holden’s novella Night Shift follows a largely working-class cast of characters for five night shifts in a factory that produces camera parts for war planes.

It Was Different At The Time is Holden’s account of wartime life from April 1938 to August 1941, drawn from her own diary. This was intended to be a joint project written with her friend George Orwell (he was in the end too busy to contribute), and includes disguised appearances by notable literary figures of the period.

Format: Paperback (194 pages)                        Publisher: Handheld Press
Publication date: 1st May 2019 [1941, 1943] Genre: Fiction, Nonfiction

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My Review

From the very beginning of Night Shift, the reader is immersed in the chaos and destruction of the London Blitz as the sounds of an air-raid form the backdrop to the work of the women employed in the factory. “From outside there came to us the air-raid orchestra of airplane hum, anti-aircraft shell bursts, ambulance and fire bells.”

The women of the night shift vary in age and background. For example, the young woman nicknamed Feather because she repeatedly forgets to bring her own cup to use during their tea break, or the talkative Mabs, endlessly chronicling her disappointments. “Her own life was a burden to her. She was like a pedlar, trudging along with a great weight of goods, whose only happiness is in being able to unpack the parcel and set out the store.”

Our narrator recounts the chat, gossip and ‘cut-up scraps of conversation’ that accompany the shifts: their grumbles too, chiefly about the menu on offer in the shed that serves as the staff canteen. “Every evening there was the same trouble about the food. It was a short play performed once nightly with alternating villains.” The women of the night shift also have an amusingly dismissive view of the sloppy behaviour of their counterparts on the day shift.

The author has an ear for the idiosyncrasies of speech. For instance, Mabs’ personification of Hitler as she describes a raid on the East End of London. “Well, of course he’s bin over again since then… But it’s never bin as bad as it was that first night when he come over. It was wicked; I reckon if he was to come down in the East End after all he’s done to us, there wouldn’t be one single bit of him left.” Or, hearing people refer to the beginning of the war as ‘the old days’ as if it was the distant past rather than just a few months before.

Over a period of six days, the reader witnesses the tedium and repetitive nature of the work the women undertake. And the difficulties don’t just start when they clock on but on the journey to and from their shifts. “It was clear that no one could enjoy making a tiring, cold and dangerous journey each night to a factory, to work at a mechanical job for long hours, sit for an hour in an uncomfortable shed and then work for a further five-and-a-half hours; and after this, set out in the cold dark morning, perhaps with enemy airplanes still overhead, to struggle through the tiresome and tiring journey home, and so on for six nights out of every seven.” No wonder then that the high point of the week is Friday – pay night.

Saturday sees one of the worst nights of the Blitz (so much so that it is referred to as “the” Saturday). As with the opening of the book, the air-raid is described in the form of a fantastically vivid soundscape.

“The penny whistle, the siren wail, airplane hum, gunfire, penny whistle again, howling of dogs, a tear-sheet sound of bomb, crackling sound of fire, running feet, dragging of a stirrup pump along a floor, human voice giving out directions, water jetting against burning rafters, the stones of a house falling in quickly, talk, ambulance bells, fire-engine bells, breaking glass, patter of shell splinter like fine rain, boots brave-walking along a street, machine-gun fire in the air, shell splinter on the ground – a noise like a barbed wire rug being rolled up, wardens’ whistles, firewatchers’ whistles, auxiliary fire-engine wheels and shouted orders.”

This fictional account is based closely on the author’s own experience of the same night, recorded in her diary at the time and later in It Was Different At The Time, of which more in a moment. Night Shift ends with a sense of national pride and hope for the future, a future in which, reflecting Holden’s own socialist beliefs, the courage of people may be used for “their greater happiness and well-being”.

As well as being a fascinating companion piece to Night Shift, It Was Different At The Time demonstrates Inez Holden’s observational skills and neat turns of phrase. For example, her description of guests who move between the country houses of acquaintances as “a chain-gang of house parties” or of a quarrel between husband and wife at a drinks party as an “argument for two egoists – crescendo, allegro and piano”.

A memorable scene is Holden’s attendance – for journalistic reasons – at a 1938 meeting where Sir Oswald Mosley delivers a speech. I couldn’t help thinking of modern parallels for her observation that, “Sometimes there appear on the political horizon men who see strategy instead of suffering, politics instead of people. Men who have a kind of tone-deafness to humanity… Such men are dangerous”.

As 1938 comes to an end, Holden starts work as a Red Cross nurse in a large hospital. Again, she displays her keen ear for vocal mannerisms such as the banter of her fellow nurses at break times and the way patients become referred to by their bed number (even by the other patients).  Or the ceremony of ‘going down’ with the patient to be operated on being wheeled away to cries of good luck, as if he were “a king being carried on a litter into battle”.

August and September 1939 bring nightly air-raids lasting up to nine hours and I was moved by Holden’s description of watching people head for the shelters carrying rugs and blankets. “The sight of this procession of people with their bundles of bedclothes at sundown in the London streets is deeply touching.”  The book is full of such striking images.  For example, the sight of a tree whose branches are draped with items of clothing blown from a bombed building which Holden likens to a surrealist painting.

Throughout, the author is alert to class distinctions and the ways in which the War and wartime regulations, such as clothes rationing, will affect rich and poor differently. Or the unfairness of women being offered lower wages than men for the same work.

I can’t end this review without mentioning the fascinating introduction by Kristin Bluemel which provides not only informed reflection on both texts but also more information about Inez Holden herself.  Also the notes at the end of the book prepared by Kristin Bluemel and publisher, Kate Macdonald.

If my review of Blitz Writing has sparked your interest in the works of Inez Holden or of other women writers of the period, I’m pleased to say Handheld Press will be publishing Inez Holden’s There’s No Story There: Wartime Writing 1944-1945 alongside Margaret Kennedy’s Where Stands a Wingèd Sentry in March 2021. Both are available for pre-order now from Handheld Press.

In three words: Authentic, immersive, insightful

Try something similar: Eve in Overalls: Women at Work in the Second World War 

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About the Author

Inez Holden (1903-1974) was a British writer and literary figure whose social and professional connections embraced most of London’s literary and artistic life. She modelled for Augustus John, worked alongside Evelyn Waugh, and had close relationships with George Orwell, Stevie Smith, H G Wells, Cyril Connolly, and Anthony Powell.


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