By Inez Holden

Handheld Press. 194 pages. £12.99. ISBN 078-1-912766-06-2

Reviewed by Jim Burns

What did I know about Inez Holden before receiving this welcome re-issue of two of her short novels from the 1940s? Only a little, I have to admit. I had read an amusing story, “Uncle Drunkle”, in an old copy of Writing Today, edited by Denys Val Baker and Peter Ratazzi in 1943. And there was another, “The Flat Above Me”, in Penguin New Writing 9 (1941), edited by John Lehman. These were publications I’d picked up in second-hand bookshops as I hunted for grubby copies of magazines from the 1940s.

Andrew Sinclair mentioned Holden a couple of times in War Like A Wasp; The Lost Decade of the Forties (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1989) but didn’t include any of her work in The War Decade: An Anthology of the 1940s (Hamish Hamilton, London, 1989). Holden’s “According to the Directive” was selected for Wave Me Goodbye: Stories of the Second World War, edited by Anne Boston (Virago, London, 1988). I picked up bits of information from the notes on contributors in these publication, but it was Celia Goodman’s “Inez Holden: A Memoir” in London Magazine (December/January, 1993/94), edited by Alan Ross, that helped me to get a better grip on her personality and writing career.

Holden was born in 1903 or 1904 (her parents didn’t bother to register her birth) into a financially comfortable but somewhat eccentric household. Her mother was a noted “Edwardian beauty who had owned fifteen hunters and was known as the second best horsewoman in Britain”. Her father came from a family listed in Burke’s Landed Gentry.  According to Kristin Bluemel in her informative introduction to Blitz Writing, Holden didn’t have a conventional upbringing. She seems to have been left very much to her own devices by parents who were constantly at odds with each other. In later years she rarely spoke of her father, who she remembered firing a shot at her mother but luckily missing. When she was 15 she ran away and went to Paris and then London, “living on her wits and her exceptional good looks”. By the time she was in her twenties she was “considered to be a bohemian society beauty”, and was sketched by Augustus John.

There was more to her than the frippery of the bright young things of the time. She had a talent for writing, and in the late-1920s and early-1930s she published three novels which recorded “the frivolous, absurd lives of the privileged characters who could have stepped out of the pages of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies”.  

It’s difficult to determine exactly when and how Holden became more socially and politically conscious, both in her life and writing. Like other writers, she probably reacted to the tensions of the 1930s as the Depression brought poverty to millions of people and fascism began its inexorable rise in Europe. She knew George Orwell and H.G. Wells, and as a journalist covered meetings addressed by Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists. Wells later broke off his friendship when he accused her of siding with Orwell over an article attacking Wells that he wrote for Cyril Connolly’s magazine, Horizon.

When the war started in 1939 Holden, like many other people, either volunteered for, or was conscripted into, the work force required to replace the men from factories and other locations who were being called-up for the armed forces. She did some basic training as a Red Cross nurse and worked as an auxiliary in hospitals and first-aid posts during the blitz, and later spent time in an engineering works as a machinist producing parts for aircraft. Her experiences provided the basic material for Night Shift and It Was Different at the Time.

It Was Different at the Time was written in the form of a diary, though not with a strict series of daily entries. It moves through a period from April, 1938 to August, 1941, focusing on certain months in each year, and building up the approach to war, its start, and the onset of bombing raids on London. To give an idea of Holden’s commitment to what can be described as “socialist anti-communism”. she tells how she still had the kind of connections that got her invited to a weekend in a country house. But the seeming-indifference of many of the guests to anything other than their own personal concerns, often centred around money, disturbed her: “Distressed areas, malnutrition, and unemployment are all subjects before which the blinds of the mind must be drawn down quick”. And she adds that “this is the gay Bohemian thanklessness of artists, writers, musicians, and the like”.

She has a friend, Victor, who has just returned from Spain, and is addressing meetings to raise funds for the Republican government. It’s probable that he’s based on Hugh Slater, who was an officer in the British Battalion of the 15th International Brigade. Holden had what is described as “a troubled romantic attachment to Slater that lasted for years”. But, at a party, she also meets “a German with some National Socialist’s paid job”, who says that Hitler is peace-loving”, but with regard to Spain, comments that it is “good practice for our airmen” to be engaged in bombing towns and villages in Republican territory.

When war was declared, Holden took on work as a Red Cross Nurse, and her experiences began to widen. The descriptions of the hospital wards are brisk and to the point, and her quickly-established portraits of staff and patients soon create a wide picture that the reader can clearly see. People have personalities and are not just a faceless mass. Much of the work that Holden did was routine and designed to support the qualified nurses, but she seems to have been present during at least one operation. Taking down details from a patient she finds that he has no next-of-kin, no friends, but she is impressed by his “apparent happiness. He was uninhibited, without fear, smiling and strong”. 

Later, working at a first-aid post, she watches the “demolition men, rescue parties, and stretcher bearers” being called out night after night. Like the firemen, they work while the bombs are still falling and the fires raging, and don’t always return. Harry, a popular officer – “Always there when anything’s on…..Right on the spot at the start and, and the last to leave at the finish”, in the words of a member of his team – goes out one night and is killed.

Night Shift picks up Holden’s story after she left working as a Red Cross nurse, and obtained employment as a machinist in a factory. It covers a working week, Monday through to Saturday, with the actual work being repetitious and seemingly needing only basic instruction before the operative is left to get on with the job. The employees were mostly women, though the foremen and supervisors were all men. Pay and conditions were not good, and the long hours (up to 60 a week) didn’t produce hefty pay packets. Holden writes about the constant complaining among the workers regarding how little they earned. Some were lucky enough to do piece work and so could earn more if they produced the requisite amount of whatever it was they were working on.

There is a woman called Feather among the workers and she is clearly very much like Holden in being better-educated, if not in a formal way, and wider-travelled than her colleagues. She probably represented Holden, though the anonymous narrator talks about her as just being one among many. But, as in It Was Different at the Time, the workers aren’t a nameless mass. Many of them are named and given certain distinctions of character that enable the reader to see them as individuals. They talk about their husbands and boyfriends, many of who are already in the armed forces, and about what they do when they’re not at work.

The hazards of factory work, especially at night, while the Blitz is at its height are outlined. Everyone is conscious of the fact that a bomb may hit the factory at any time. When one does while the Saturday night shift is working, the narrator is lucky in that she had been transferred to a Sunday night shift, and so is not killed or injured. Her situation brings out how much it was a matter of chance who lived or died. Another woman is doubly lucky. She missed the Saturday night shift because her house was damaged by a bomb blast and she survived but couldn’t get to work. Death is all around, and people just get on with what they have to do.

In many ways, Holden’s writing is much more convincing than later fictional recreations of the Blitz. Written while the events she describes were taking place, it still has a fresh feeling that gives it an immediacy. She keeps her prose simple and describes what she has seen without fuss:

“I went up to the top of one of the empty houses and looked out over London. All around us there were fires, seven or eight of these bowls of flame were near, so that we seemed to be existing in a small camp. In the sky there were intermittent flashes of anti-aircraft gunfire. They looked like stars and took their place amongst the other stars which never went out”.

It often strikes me that wartime circumstances led many writers to a direct and straightforward way of writing. There wasn’t a mood or an inclination to experiment, in either prose or poetry. Communication was the key factor when writing a story or a poem, and the aim was to reach as wide an audience as possible. No-one, writers and readers, wanted to waste time. Short stories, short novels, short poems predominated. Little magazines with compendiums of stories and other material that might be read in the barrack-room, the factory canteen, or while waiting to be called out to a fire, were popular and sold in numbers that would astound editors of literary publication today.

What happened to Inez Holden after 1945? Despite being widely published in a variety of magazines, and with seven novels (two published in the early-1950s) and two short-story collections to her credit, plus writing film-scripts for J. Arthur Rank, she was never a best-selling author. Kristin Bluemel sums up her situation in these words: “During her lifetime, Holden achieved publication but not fame, her novels and short stories and journalistic work failing to attain the popularity or influence achieved by many of her writer friends”. She doesn’t appear to have ever earned a lot of money from her writing, and presumably may have had an income from her family background. According to her cousin, Celia Goodman, Holden wrote only short stories, many of them published in Punch, after her last novel appeared in 1956. She died in 1976.

I think it’s worth quoting Kristin Bluemel again when she sums up what Holden achieved with the two works I’ve reviewed; “Despite a career that produced no best-sellers and earned no literary awards, she composed a life out of the colourful scraps of material that others left behind and wove from them stories of the everyday art of survival in a city that was falling down and in a country defying destruction”

A couple of final notes that may be of interest. A character called Felicity crops up in It Was Different at the Time, and was based on her friend, Stevie Smith. In return, Smith based someone called Lopez in her novel, The Holiday, and her short story, “The Story of a Story”, on Holden. And, though it wasn’t quite like Marcel Proust’s experience, memories of my childhood during the war came flooding back when I read Inez Holden’s reference to a meal of corned beef and fried potatoes in Night Shift. I thought it was a great treat at the time.