Blitz Writing

Memories—or stories, or myths—of the Blitz have surfaced several times of late, a comparison that doesn’t really fit, as has often been pointed out, but perhaps understandable during that very brief period earlier this year when there was a widespread sense of something affecting or afflicting the entire nation, a sense too of a collective effort and responsibility.

There are, though, a couple of genuine points of comparison: the Blitz is usually defined as having lasted around eight months, during which time nearly 30,000 people were killed and around 25,000 wounded. Covid-19 in its British context has lasted around that long so far; and the excess deaths attributed to it are pretty close to the entire casualty figures from the Blitz.

‘Blitz writing’ is a fairly crowded field, with some eminent names—depending on your definition of the term—ranging from Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Henry Green, Patrick Hamilton, William Sansom and H. D. to Evelyn Waugh, E. M. Forster, James Hanley, Mollie Panter-Downes, Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf, producing poetry, essays, letters, fiction and diaries.

I’ve been reading a book that offers examples of those last two, and with precisely that title: Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It Was Different at the Time by Inez Holden, edited by Kristin Bluemel and published by Kate Macdonald’s excellent Handheld Press
(https://www.handheldpress.co.uk/shop/womens-lives/blitz-writing/)

The second part is drawn from Holden’s diaries, evidently selected and edited with great care, part of a project originally intended to be shared with George Orwell, with whom she had a close relationship. The first is a short novel about the workers at an aircraft factory over six nights, both men and women of various ages, classes and backgrounds. Its title recalled for me the first published writing of one of my admired authors, Sylvia Townsend Warner, ‘Behind the Firing Line’ by ‘A Lady Worker’, an account of her wartime work in a munitions factory, which appeared in February 1916.[1] Warner published quite a few stories set during the Second World War but their landscape was the towns and villages of the southern counties of England rather than London or any other major city.[2]

Inez Holden came from a wealthy upper-class background; her friends included H. G. Wells, Anthony Powell and Stevie Smith (both Powell and Smith based fictional characters on her) and she partied with such luminaries as Cecil Beaton, Stephen Tennant, Tallulah Bankhead and Harold Acton. Holden’s first novel, Sweet Charlatan, appeared in 1929, the same year as Living, a novel focused on the workers in a Birmingham factory, by Henry Green—also from an upper-class background. Green’s novel was more obviously adventurous stylistically—he eliminated definite articles, for instance—and was a peacetime work. Written during the war and centrally concerned with it, particularly the period of the Blitz, Holden’s focus was also predominantly on working-class life. By the ‘mid-to-late thirties’, Kristin Bluemel writes in her informative introduction, Holden ‘identified herself as an anti-Communist socialist’ (xv), a position clearly comparable to Orwell’s own.

(The Impersonation Party, 1927: Holden second from right in striped top)

‘More obviously adventurous stylistically’ Green’s novel may have been but, while Holden’s novel seems aligned with the ‘seemingly objective, truth-telling stance associated with 1930s documentary fiction’ (xviii), recalling in this the famous assertion on the first page of Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin (1939)—‘I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking’—it’s very written, with some sly and subtle touches, some noticeable idiosyncrasies, such as her avoidance of comparative terms—opting for ‘more happy’ rather than ‘happier’, ‘more clear’ rather than ‘clearer’—as well as supple shifts into other registers and varied narratorial angles.

The novel opens with the heading ‘Monday’ and the injunction: ‘Follow me’, though the words are spoken by Sid, the second-in-charge of the night shift. Nevertheless, we follow. Ten lines in, the ‘I’ of the narrator first appears. The character called ‘Feather’ can reasonably be seen as a projection of Holden’s own social background or may, rather, be split between the two. Much of the time ‘I’ adheres to what she could plausibly hear and see – but not consistently: ‘Feather remembered the time’ and ‘Feather thought’ – though these moments are followed by ‘Feather also said to me’, allowing the inference that she has spoken to the narrator of what she remembered and thought (52). But, on the following page, when a girl called Nan quickly slaps a young Home Guard boy who is lounging around her work bench, ‘Feather, who had happened to look up and see this happen, thought: “She’s like those high-class cricketers who can field and throw back in one movement.”’

The ‘objective’ realist stance allows for perceptive moments that many readers will acknowledge the accuracy of: ‘Sometimes it was like that in the factory. The machinery noise never ceased, but it was the sound of a squeaking boot or a dropped cup, the noise within the noise, the unwarranted attack that was so painful’ (54). Holden also seizes sometimes on surprising metaphors and similes, as when alluding to the foreman jealous of the ease with which Feather and Sid converse: ‘Flash Jim, who now walked away on his work looking as acid as if he had been nourished on vinegar fed to him from the end of a hat pin’ (70). Some observations might well be applied to other ages than her own: there is in the factory ‘a convention against easy heroical talk and pat-off patriotism in the workshop; that way of yapping-out was all right for people who did not work at all, read in the newspapers sitting well back in their arm-chairs and thought, “We are all in it together” because they listened to the radio news four times a day’ (74). Then, too, ‘The few months ago in war-time so soon became “the old days” so that already we looked back on the first months of war as on remote memories of adolescence’ (78). The narrator remarks at one point that: ‘Fatigue had a great strength, perhaps it was stronger than love or hatred, because it could produce a mood which no insults or sorrow could reach’ (82).

(H. F. Davis/ Getty Images/ via The Guardian)

Kristin Bluemel comments (xvii-xviii) on the degree to which Holden listened to the Blitz, how sound connects the chapters of the novel and the use made of individual sounds in the remarkable final chapter: separate and, in context, odd, out of place and doubly memorable. First is the penny whistle, its clear notes heard even amidst ‘the usual orchestra of city bombardment’, played by ‘the street musician who stood, each evening, at the end of the road where the shops started’. He goes on ‘with this work as if the happenings around did not concern him.’ To the narrator, who is on firewatching duty, the whistling takes on ‘an enduring sound like the treble tune of thrush heard through a thunderstorm’ (77). She makes her way towards the area where the factory at which she works is sited and realises that the building has been hit. ‘A small crowd of people were standing in the road watching. This group was like a revue sketch crowd of actors carefully made up to seem absurd’ (82).

Later, as part of the blazing factory collapses, a bird begins to sing. There comes ‘a second sound of falling stones’ and ‘the note of the singing bird became more clear’ (83). The narrator makes her tired way home. ‘I remembered again two clear sounds, the penny whistle at the beginning of the bombardment, the bird singing at the end of it. Between these two sounds there showed a chink of light through which I could see the start of a more hopeful life, a future in which the courage of people could also be used for their greater happiness and well-being’ (85). 

Handheld Press will be publishing another Inez Holden title in March 2021: There’s No Story There: Wartime Writing, 1944-1945. She’s quite a discovery, and I’m glad to have made it – or rather, to have had it made for me.


Notes

[1] Partly reprinted as ‘The Night Shift’, in Sylvia Townsend Warner, With the Hunted: Selected Writings, edited by Peter Tolhurst (Norwich: Black Dog Books, 2012), 23-29.

[2] Many of them included in the recently published English Climate: Wartime Stories: https://persephonebooks.co.uk/products/english-climate

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s