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

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.


[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:

‘A gathering web of insinuations’: Henry Green

B0KGC2  Loving_Henry_Green

(Henry Green via the TLS; jacket of first edition, Loving)

‘This writer is unique’, Sebastian Faulks remarked. ‘No fiction has ever thrilled me as the great moments in Living and Loving; I have been moved by Tolstoy, Lawrence, Proust and others, perhaps more so, but not in the same way.’[1]

Faulks is writing here about Henry Green, whose admirers have included John Updike, W. H. Auden,  Elizabeth Bowen, Kingsley Amis, Rebecca West, Anthony Burgess, V. S. Pritchett, Angus Wilson, Olivia Manning, L. P. Hartley and Julian Maclaren-Ross.[2] Edmund White apparently rereads Green’s 1950 novel Nothing every year.[3]

Green – real name Henry Yorke – worked in his family’s engineering firm, after Eton and Oxford, eventually becoming its managing director. His second novel, Living (1929), set in a Birmingham iron foundry, cast a cold eye on the definite article and focused closely on the rhythms of its characters’ speech and behaviour.

‘Lily Gates and Jim Dale, who was Mr Craigan’s young man in iron foundry, stood in queue outside cinema on Friday night. They said nothing to each other. Later they got in and found seats. Light rain had been falling, so when these two acting on screen walked by summer night down leafy lane, hair over ears left wet on his cheek as she leant head, when they on screen stopped and looked at each other. [ . . . ] Later her head was leaning on his shoulder again, like hanging clouds against hills every head in this theatre tumbled without hats against another, leaning everywhere.’[4]

Written during the war, when Green served in the Auxiliary Fire Service, his fifth novel—exactly midway in that sequence of nine, spread over twenty-seven years—was Loving, set in an Irish country house, staffed by English servants, during the Second World War. Those circumstances are conveyed early in the book with great economy, as the old butler lies dying: ‘The pointed windows of Mr Eldon’s room were naked glass with no blinds or curtains. For this was in Eire where there is no blackout.’[5]

Green memorably recalled his novel’s genesis—it certainly stuck in my mind anyway—in a 1958 Paris Review interview with Terry Southern:

‘I got the idea of Loving from a manservant in the Fire Service during the war. He was serving with me in the ranks, and he told me he had once asked the elderly butler who was over him what the old boy most liked in the world. The reply was: “Lying in bed on a summer morning, with the window open, listening to the church bells, eating buttered toast with cunty fingers.” I saw the book in a flash.’[6]

Loving’s central character is Charley Raunce, the footman promoted to butler after Eldon’s demise—or rather, one of the central characters, since the novel concerns in large part the coming together of Raunce and Edith, beautiful and sweet-natured, one of the two under-housemaids, who, when we first encounter her, has ‘stuck a peacock’s feather above her lovely head, in her dark-folded hair’ (19). The Tennants’ two hundred peacocks play a recurring part in this novel, as practical elements in the story as much as in symbolic force. Green’s working-class characters are sometimes untruthful or dishonest or selfish or conniving—fully human, that is to say—but they tend to come off immeasurably better than their social ‘superiors’ who, though of Green’s own class, are often mercilessly anatomised to reveal their shallowness, amorality and hypocrisy. Green denied any socio-political programme in his work: with Living, he said, ‘I just wrote what I heard and saw’. A group of workers at the factory put in a penny each and bought a copy. ‘And as I was going round the iron-foundry one day, a loam-moulder said to me: “I read your book, Henry.” “And did you like it?” I asked, rightly apprehensive. He replied: “I didn’t think much of it, Henry.” Too awful.’

Burne-Jones, Edward, 1833-1898; A Peacock

(Edward Burne-Jones, A Peacock: Victoria and Albert Museum)

I’ve always been drawn to Green in part because he seems unlike any other writer (though Ivy Compton-Burnett is sometimes cited: the social class of many characters and the dominance of dialogue); and critics seem not to know where to put him, if they put him anywhere. His first novel appeared in 1926, just four years after Ulysses; his second in 1929, the year of The Sound and the Fury—and, though Green said he hadn’t read Ulysses until after he’d completed Living, he did profess great admiration for Faulkner. So, as a novelist, he was a contemporary of Joyce, Ford, Faulkner, Wyndham Lewis, Woolf—but rarely crops up in discussions of ‘modernism’.[7] In the Paris Review interview, Southern commented on the difficulty of tracing Green’s work to sources of influence, noting that V. S. Pritchett had tried to place it ‘in the tradition of Sterne, Carroll, Firbank, and Virginia Woolf’, while Philip Toynbee had gone for ‘Joyce, Thomas Wolfe, and Henry Miller’. When the question of influence was put directly to him, Green answered rather splendidly: ‘I really don’t know. As far as I’m consciously aware I forget everything I read at once including my own stuff.’ (He then admitted to ‘a tremendous admiration for Céline.’)[8]

Here are Edith and her fellow-maidservant Kate, discovered by Charley dancing in the ballroom, in a part of the great house now closed: ‘They were wheeling wheeling in each other’s arms heedless at the far end where they had drawn up one of the white blinds. Above from a rather low ceiling five great chandeliers swept one after the other almost to the waxed parquet floor reflecting in their hundred thousand drops the single sparkle of distant day, again and again red velvet panelled walls, and two girls, minute in purple, dancing multiplied to eternity in these trembling pears of glass’ (65).


There are many moments of startling beauty and poignancy in Green’s books – and innumerable moments of comedy. There are, too, tiny, distinctive touches such as Raunce’s regular letters to his mother in Peterborough, first written in pencil—as is the envelope—then carefully inked in (and the money order added).

‘Prose is not to be read aloud but to oneself alone at night, and it is not quick as poetry but rather a gathering web of insinuations which go further than names however shared can ever go’, Green wrote in his ‘mid-term autobiography’. ‘Prose should be a long intimacy between strangers with no direct appeal to what both may have known. It should slowly appeal to feelings unexpressed, it should in the end draw tears out of the stone, and feelings are not bounded by the associations common to place names or to persons with whom the reader is unexpectedly familiar.’[9]

‘A long intimacy between strangers’ sounds about right—and pretty characteristic of its author too. A touch enigmatic and paradoxical, with that hint of contradiction which seems to dissolve on closer inspection.


[1] Sebastian Faulks, introduction to Henry Green, Loving, Living, Party Going (London: Vintage, 2005), 13.

[2] Julian Maclaren-Ross’s Bitten by the Tarantula and other writing (London: Black Spring Press, 2005), includes both his essay on Green ‘A Poet of Fear’ (291-297) and his parody of him (481-484).

[3] Rachel Cooke, review of The Unpunished Vice: A Life of Reading:

[4] Henry Green, Living, 216-217.

[5] Henry Green, Loving, 13.

[6] The interview is reprinted in Surviving: The Uncollected Writings of Henry Green, edited by Matthew Yorke, introduction by John Updike (London: Chatto and Windus, 1992), 234-250. A headnote quotes a letter from Southern: ‘No, there is no real trouble over our interview. There is some vague and preliminary dissension among the staff over the use of the word “cunty”, but nothing concrete.’ A little later, this exchange occurs: INTERVIEWER: And have you ever heard of an actual case of an Irish household being staffed with English servants? MR GREEN: Not that comes quickly to mind, no. (249).

[7] Although James Wood stated that Lawrence, Woolf and Green ‘were the last great English novelists, the last true magi of language, the last serious European modernists’; see ‘Martin Amis: The English imprisonment’, in The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief (London: Jonathan Cape, 1999), 186.

[8] Surviving, 236, 243.

[9] Henry Green, Pack My Bag: A Self-Portrait (1940; The Hogarth Press, 1992), 84.

[10] Henry Green, Nothing (1950), in Nothing, Doting, Blindness (London: Vintage 2008), 60.

[11] Henry Green, Loving, 109.

Back, Green, Rose


Still wincing and grunting whenever I move, I think ‘back’ is my personal word of the month. But also being a reluctant believer in the God of the Three Occurrences, should such a deity exist, I remember listing among the authors I planned to reread this year Henry Green, whose nine brilliant and often baffling novels include one called Back. Published in 1946, it’s about the return to England in the summer of 1945 of a young man who was three years a prisoner of war after sustaining a wound which resulted in his losing a leg. Rose, the woman he loved, was married to another man and has since died. Charley Summers then meets a woman, Nancy, Rose’s half-sister, who exactly and disturbingly resembles Rose and whom he comes to believe is her.

In the graveyard at the opening of the novel, Charley ‘ran his eye with caution over cypresses and between gravestones. He might have been watching for a trap, who had lost his leg in France for not noticing the gun beneath a rose.’ Green continues: ‘For, climbing around and up these trees of mourning, was rose after rose after rose’. That may stir memories of Gertrude Stein—‘Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose’—and John Ruskin weaving the name of his beloved and—after 1875—dead Rose La Touche into the pages of Fors Clavigera.

Hazzard-Transit-of-Venus    Hazzard-Great-Fire

I recently reread the two marvellous late novels by Shirley Hazzard, the second of which, The Great Fire (published more than twenty years after The Transit of Venus) concerns itself with a world soon after the Second World War in which the ‘victors’ also are hugely damaged. Quite late in the book, the protagonist Aldred Leith, returned to England in 1948 from work in China and Japan, is given a present by Aurora, a former lover of both his own and his father’s, which he doesn’t open at the time. ‘In the hotel room, he unwrapped Aurora’s package. The book, a fresh work by a writer he enjoyed, was called Back. He finished it that night, and fell asleep near dawn.’

All three present and correct then: reading list; wincing and grunting; Shirley Hazzard. I know how to take a hint.