#BookReview There’s No Story There: Wartime Writing, 1944 – 1945 by Inez Holden @KateHandheld

There's No Story ThereAbout the Book

There’s No Story There is about the lives of conscripted workers at Statevale, an enormous rural munitions factory somewhere in England during the Second World War. The workers are making shells and bombs, and no chances can be taken with so much high explosive around. Trolleys are pushed slowly, workers wear rubber-soled soft shoes, and put protective cream on their faces. Any kind of metal, moving fast, can cause a spark, and that would be fatal. All cigarettes and matches are handed in before the workers can enter the danger zone, and they wear asbestos suits.

This new edition of There’s No Story There also includes three pieces of Holden’s long-form journalism, detailing wartime life.

Format: Paperback (231 pages)                  Publisher: Handheld Press
Publication date: 23rd March 2021 [1944] Genre: Fiction,

Find There’s No Story There: And Other Wartime Writing on Goodreads

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Publisher | Hive 
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My Review

In her introduction to There’s No Story There, Lucy Scholes describes the book as ‘a detailed and compassionate portrait of life during wartime’. She argues that Holden had the gift of seeing the story others didn’t and of challenging the prevailing notion that the lives of ordinary working people weren’t a suitable topic for fiction. I think, having now read There’s No Story There, I can safely say that the men and women who worked in the real life counterparts of the Statevale munitions factory imagined in the book, were far from ‘ordinary’. It was dirty, dangerous work as the book vividly depicts.

The final chapter ‘Writing Home’ provides the clearest picture of the vast scale of the Statevale factory site, employing as it does 30,000 workers and guarded by armed police. In a letter to her sister, factory worker Jane describes even just the company hostel where many of the workers live, with its sleeping blocks, laundry and allotments, as being like a small town.

The hostel’s dining room provides much material for Geoffrey Doran who, in addition to performing his time and motion duties, has set himself the task of becoming a one man Mass Observation project. Eavesdropping on conversations, he hears workers discussing the minutiae of daily life – everything from the contents of food parcels to the reasons behind nicknames – which he meticulously records in his notebook. That is, until he loses that precious object, resulting in ‘a mass of workers observing him’ in his frenzied efforts to retrieve it.

Holden particularly demonstrates her keen ear for mannerisms of speech in the chapter ‘Time Off’ set in the local pub, and in the chapter ‘Internal Railway’ when a character remarks, “Never seem to fancy being in this valley when old Adolf’s Loofter Wafter’s overhead”. She also possesses an inventive way with words. For example, she describes the workers completing their shift as ‘limb-heavying’ their way out of the factory.

When heavy snow prevents many of the workers leaving the factory, everyone pitches in to make the best of the situation. As one character remarks, “Funny, wasn’t it, all them 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 of what we’re all here for, and how we’re only making things to kill people. It don’t seem right do it?”

There are welcome moments of humour in the book. As someone who, in her working life sat through too many seemingly pointless meetings, I particularly enjoyed the chapter ‘Joint Production’ in which members of the factory’s management team attend a meeting chaired by factory superintendent, Mr. Whistler. In scenes reminiscent of the now infamous Handforth Parish Council meeting, the Chief Clerk, Mr. Twizden, struggles to get the attendees to address remarks via the chair, especially during a heated debate about installing additional ventilation. Where’s Jackie Weaver when you need her? Observing those leaving the meeting, one character concludes, “Twizden’s tie was crooked too, and it takes a lot to upset him. It must have been a stormy meeting”.  And the chapter ‘Factory Tour’ sees the officious Head of Security, Major Quantock, making detailed preparations for a visit by a distinguished visitor that turns out to be not quite what was expected.

At the online book launch on 23rd March 2021 chaired by Kate MacDonald of Handheld Press (you can watch a recording of it here) there was a fascinating discussion involving Lucy Scholes and Ariane Bankes, Inez Holden’s literary executor, about the balance between dispassionate observation and empathy in Holden’s representation of the characters in There’s No Story There. My own thoughts are that Holden’s sense of empathy is most clearly demonstrated in the character of Julian, silently transporting dangerous materials around the factory whilst all the time engaged in an internal dialogue of ‘what ifs’ until the intensity of another character’s story prompts him finally to speak. On the other hand, the dispassionate observation is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by a tragic incident that occurs fairly early on in the book that is described almost in passing.

The book also includes three short pieces of Inez Holden’s writing. ‘Musical Chairman’ describes a meeting of an Appeals Board hearing cases brought by the workers refused permission to leave their employment under wartime regulations. Although the stories of hardship provide an insight into many of the domestic challenges thrown up by wartime, I found the language used to describe some of the applicants with mental health issues, albeit no doubt in wide circulation at the time, quite objectionable. The final two stories, ‘Soldiers Chorus’ and ‘Exiles in Conversation’ once again show Holden’s keen ear for the idiosyncrasies of conversational style.

In three words: Authentic, witty, immersive

Try something similar: Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It Was Different At The Time by Inez Holden

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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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