Inez Holden was a journalist, and a friend or a colleague of most of the literary giants of the middle of the twentieth century, as well as a former lover of George Orwell. I’ve been reading her Second World War writing, and have been thoroughly intrigued by her novel There’s No Story There (1944), which is both a story and not a story, as the title points out. I wish I had a cover to show you, but this is a book that has evaded the internet entirely, and my only source is a scanned copy from a friend who’s been using it for teaching so much that it’s covered in her notes.
It’s a wartime narrative, set in a top-secret munitions establishment in Yorkshire, and has no plot. It leads the reader through the descriptions of this bizarre wartime setting via the stories of individuals, and some things happen, while others do not. Holden is skilled at raising the tension so that the reader fervently hopes that X will not, please, happen to Y, and then is disproportionately disappointed that Y remains safe, even though X was really not desirable. When sudden death does occur, Holden slips it into the sentences without fanfare, and we are shocked at its abruptness, and unexpectedness.
It’s the signalling that makes the reader anxious, as well as the terrifying setting. I have no idea if munitions works on such a scale did exist in Britain. The way Holden describes this small town of a factory —‘seven miles of carefully planned human paraphernalia’ — it sounds like science fiction, or something out of Nazi Germany. This may be one of the political points made in the novel, and something that links it to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four (1949), later on: there is clearly a war on, but the focus is on making bombs, without much thought about who the bombs are aimed at. Hitler is mentioned in casual remarks, so we know that Nazi Germany is the enemy, but the characters are focused on their own condition, getting on and doing their jobs, because they are in the grip of the war machine and there is no room for individual choice in that. At the level of measuring explosives into a shell case, we are all the same, equally in danger of death.
Workers arrive by bus from their large workers’ hostel, and then go through the stages of entry to the works. They go through Inspection first, where they are searched, then through Contraband where they hand over their cigarettes and matches. In the Shifting huts they change their clothes and wear asbestos trousers and jackets and hats, and put protective cream and powder on their faces. The paths are called cleanways, made of black rubber, and trucks to take supplies from the stores to the workshops have silent rubber wheels. Nothing must cause a spark, because that causes explosions, and these seven miles of workshops, store-rooms, even the canteens and surgeries, are impregnated with explosives. There are clear parallels in this entry routine with that undergone by the prisoners in the Nazi concentration camps, but it’s not known how much Holden knew of these when she wrote this novel. The two settings share an overwhelming sense of utilitarian organisation and careful thought for the primacy of process. In Holden’s munitions works there is also great care taken of the workers’ welfare and morale, but only so that they will keep coming to work, and that they will not become a danger to themselves or others.
The characters whom we follow around in their working day are vividly described. Linnet is a young married woman longing for the 48hr visit of her serviceman husband, whom she hasn’t seen for a year. Julian is a shell-shocked survivor of Dunkirk. Gluckstein is the hard-working overlooker with a secret terror of anti-Semitic attack. Geoffrey Doran is the Time and Motion man, who observes and records obsessively in his notebook. Ysabette spins fantasies about her Group Captain boyfriend and nobody listens to her because she is clearly mad. Captain Quantock is the self-important security officer. Jameson is the new and much-hated inspector. Mrs Kerslake is the snippy cinema manager. Many other characters move in and out of the narrative so that it becomes an ensemble piece in a truly impressive range of voices and personalities. The effect is of cogs in a wheel, elements of a machine, doing their allotted tasks but remaining human to the end.
Inez Holden, There’s No Story There (1944, John Lane The Bodley Head).