#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,

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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.

#BookReview A Tree Grows In Brooklyn by Betty Smith @ourclassicsclub

A Tree Grows in BrooklynAbout the Book

The Nolan family are first-generation immigrants to the United States. Originating in Ireland and Austria, their life in the Williamsburg slums of Brooklyn is poor and deprived, but their sacrifices make it possible for their children to grow up in a land of boundless opportunity.

Francie Nolan is the eldest daughter of the family. Alert, imaginative and resourceful, her journey through the first years of a century of profound change is difficult – and transformative. But amid the poverty and suffering among the poor of Brooklyn, there is hope, and the prospect of a brighter future.

Format: Paperback (496 pages)                         Publisher: Cornerstone
Publication date: 17th September 1992 [1943] Genre: Literary Fiction, Modern Classics

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Hive | Amazon UK
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My Review

It’s always tricky to write a review of a book that so many people love and that is regarded as a modern classic. Having now joined the ranks of admirers of the book, I thought I’d share just a few of the things I especially loved about the book.

  • Completely identifying with young Francie’s love of reading: “She read everything she could find: trash, classics, timetables and the grocer’s price list.”
  • How the neighbourhood is brought to life: Francie’s and her brother Neeley’s Saturday morning trips to the ‘junkie’ to sell rubbish they’ve collected during the week followed by a visit to Cheap Charlie’s penny candy store; the musicians, pretzel seller and organ grinder who visit their street from time to time.
  • Learning of occupations you didn’t know existed, such as singing waiters.
  • The multicultural nature of early 20th century New York with Jewish, Irish and other nationalities living side by side.
  • The strong female characters. “Those were the Rommely women: Mary, the mother, Evy, Sissy, and Katie, her daughters, and Francie, who would grow up to be a Rommely woman even though her name was Nolan. They were all slender, frail creatures with wondering eyes and soft fluttery voices.  But they were made out of thin invisible steel.”
  • The way the book is a love letter to Brooklyn: ‘She looked out over Brooklyn. The starlight half revealed, half concealed. She looked out over the flat roofs, uneven in height, broken once in a while by a slanting roof from a house left over from older times. The chimney pots on the roofs…and on some, the shadows looking of pigeon cotes… sometimes, faintly heard, the sleepy cooing of pigeons… the twin spires of the Church, remotely brooding over the dark tenements.. And at the end of their street, the great Bridge that threw itself like a sigh across the East River.’
  • The theme of resilience and overcoming adversity, epitomized by the tree of the book’s title. Katie: “Look at that tree growing there out of that grating. It gets no sun, and water only when it rains. It’s growing out of sour earth. And it’s strong because its hard struggle to live is making it strong. My children will be strong that way.”  
  • The power of a book to take Francie, as so many other readers, to other worlds. ‘Books became her friends and there was one for every mood. There was poetry for quiet companionship. There was adventure when she was tired of quiet hours. There would be love stories when she came to adolescence and, when she wanted to feel a closeness to someone, she could read a biography,’
  • Imagining the mischievous smile on Betty Smith’s face as writes the following section in which her teacher responds to Francie’s choice of subject matter for a composition competition. “But poverty, starvation and drunkenness are ugly subjects to choose.  We all admit these things exist.  But one doesn’t write about them.”
  • The echoes of Hitchcock’s film Rear Window in the view Francie has into neighbouring apartments on a Saturday night. ‘Through the leaves, she looked into the open uncurtained windows and saw growlers being rushed out and returned overflowing with cook foaming beer. Kids ran in and out, going to and returning from the butcher’s, the grocer’s and the baker’s. Women came in with bulky hock-shop bundles. The man’s Sunday suit was home again.  On Monday, it would go back to the pawnbroker’s for another week… Francie saw young girls making preparations to go out with their fellers. Since none of the flats had bathrooms, the girls stood before their kitchen sinks in their camisoles and petticoats, and the line the arm made, curved over the head while they washed under the arm, was very beautiful.’

As you may have gathered, I loved my time spent with the Nolan family. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a book from my Classics Club list. In fact, I’ll confess it’s a book I was supposed to read for a Classics Club spin – and not even the last one, but the one before that. Worth the wait.

In three words: Absorbing, emotional, inspiring

Try something similar: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather

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Betty SmithAbout the Author

Betty Smith was born Elisabeth Wehner on December 15, 1896, the same date as – but five years earlier than – her fictional heroine Francie Nolan. The daughter of German immigrants, she grew up poor in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, the very world she recreates with such meticulous detail in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Smith also wrote other novels and had a long career as a dramatist, writing one-act and full-length plays for which she received both the Rockefeller Fellowship and the Dramatists Guild Fellowship. She died in 1972. (Photo credit: Publisher author profile)