There’s No Story Here (1944) by Inez Holden

Those of us interested in life in Britain during the First World War have often had cause to envy those researching the Second, who have the records of Mass Observation to supply them with a plenitude of everyday detail, mostly about the dullish routine of everyday life – the sort of stuff that only incidentally gets recorded in fiction.

Handheld Press has just reissued an interesting oddity – a novel imbued with the spirit of Mass Observation, set in a munitions factory, There’s No Story Here, by Inez Holden, first published in 1944.

The novel is set in a huge munitions factory, seven miles in circumference, employing 30,000 workers, and in the spirit of Mass Observation, we are told all about it. Do you want to know what was in the parcels that people at home sent munitions workers? Here they are:

tomatoes, onions, chocolates, knitting wool, family photographs, a game or a puzzle, a postal order or some stamps, a book or some magazines, a piece of heather or shamrock, a locket, a bracelet or ring, some biscuits, shortbread, a flower in a pot, or packets of seeds to be planted in the hostel allotment, some underwear, hair slides, or a comb.

Inez Holden is very good at lists.

The factory is seen through various pairs of observant eyes. One of the observers is actually a Mass Observation reporter, spending most of his day looking for the small details of behaviour and speech that he will write up in his MO journal, but there are other watchers too. Julian is an ex-soldier, wounded at Dunkirk and suffering from PTSD, who finds himself composing an unstoppable internal monologue about what he sees and hears; two of the other people whose etes we lok through even have jobs that rely on their spotting detail; Colonel Quantock is the factory’s Security officer, forever watchful. The same goes for Inspector Jamieson (though he has an unfortunate aptitude for seeing what is not there). Recording detail is the novel’s main purpose, since there is not mush plot.

‘There’s no story here’ is what a journalist says, dismissing the factory as not newsworthy. Inez Holden proves her wrong in one sense, by showing the workers there as varied and lively, and making a collective effort that is extraordinary. In another sense the journalist’s remark is valid; this is a novel without a story. There are events – an accidental explosion, preparations for a royal visit, a heavy snowfall, and there are some narrative threads running through the episodes – an odd girl’s schizophrenia is finally diagnosed; an over-zealous policeman’s snap inspections bring about his come-uppance – but this is far from being a conventional novel with a plot. The characters are deliberately typical, though given some individuality through their speech (Holden is a very good recorder of wartime idioms). There is no feeling of narrative progress; it is a typical middle-of the-war novel, in which wartime circumstances seem as though they will go on forever, and no certainty of an end, let alone victory.

The novel’s surfeit of facts and figures give the impression of Mass Observation objectivity – yet M.O. itself was not without a certain bias; it was definitely a left-wing enterprise in its conception, and in its assumption that the opinions of ordinary people were worth recording. The novel seems not to be taking a particular political stance until the penultimate chapter, when a one-armed veteran of the Spanish Civil War tells his story. Through him Britain’s struggle against Germany is defined as continuous with the longer struggle against Fascism, rather than as, say, a struggle for national survival. Inez Holden is definitely left-wing in her sympathies; earlier, apparently, she had been a communist, but had passed through that phase (and the Marxist clichés of Charlie are mocked). She had been an associate of, and even a collaborator with Orwell, and her attitudes are not far from his. The progress of that one-armed veteran (from dish-washing in Paris restaurant to fighting in Spain) might even be an hommage to her friend, and there is something very Orwellish about the certainty with which he tells his listeners:

‘Politics are not what they purport to be, of course. We know that, but it don’t make no difference to the fact that you’ve got to fight against Fascism wherever you find it.’

The life of the novel is not in its message, butin the detail, and in those lists. What did people do when snow prevented the bus from taking them to the factory?

some sang to the thumping accompaniment of a piano in the assembly room, others listened to the radio in the recreation room, wrote letters, got books from the library, played cards and dominoes, bought stamps, cigarettes, and newspapers, or sat in the café talking, drinking tea, and staring out at the snow; and every now and then one would say to another, ‘Wonder if we shall get to work in this; it’s coming down very thick now.’

Some details are intriguing. I would have liked longer quotations from thtr songs the workers sang:

‘He was a twister and a twicer!’ came from the next room, ‘a diddler and a shyster, but one of the best.’ And then, ‘How’s yer father? He’s all right. How’s yer mother? She’s all tight.’

The new Handheld Press edition bulks out this short novel with some pieces of reportage. The most interesting of these is set in a Local Appeal Board, where employees can appeal against the war work they have been consigned to. These were less likely to cause violent objection than the Tribunals of the First World War, as one of the officials tells a young woman temporarily working there:

‘Do you ever get any rough customers?’ I asked him.
‘Oh yes, sometimes,’ he answered. ‘But not like those we got in the last war. Why, I can remember men who thought nothing of picking up a heavy inkstand like this and pitching it through the window.’

Despite this improvement in board-client relations, the novel describes several cases where there seems to be injustice. A man is to be sent away from the woman (someone else’s wife) who has borne him a child. He is already supporting his mother, so if he is sent away, money will be stretched very thin. Even more disturbing is the girl of fourteen with a slimy employer that she is keen to get away from. In these cases and most others, the Board’s verdict is a rueful decision that nothing can be done. Rules are rules.

Holden was clearly a good reporter. Her novel is first-rate social documentary, even if sometimes rather low-powered as a novel.

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