Not everything is going to plan today, the longish walk I planned turned into a medium walk after it started raining hours before forecast, and dinner is stubbornly refusing to defrost (I didn't make a plan B and don't want to brave Tesco's in the rain for something shit but not that cheap). I have finished a couple of books that have been sitting around for far to long though, and they've both been excellent, and my sister sent me stroopwafels in the post - so on balance I feel like I might just be winning.
The first of the excellent books is Inez Holden's 'Blitz Writing' from Handheld Press. It's worth signing up for their newsletter, and definitely worth following them on facebook for details of the sale box. I can also commend their services for sending presents to other people. I've been lazy about this in the past and default used amazon but will where possible be buying direct from small publishers now.
A very long time ago I read a short story by Holden (Death in High Society), and for years kept an eye out for more of her work, without success, until I'd more or less forgotten about her. The story was the sort that sticks with you though and I'm extremely pleased that Handheld are reprinting some of her work (there's more of her wartime writings coming next year). I can only hope that some of her fiction comes back into print as well.
'Blitz Writing' includes 'Night Shift' which is a lightly fictionalised account of a week on night shift in a factory engineering parts, and 'It Was Different at the Time' which is a more general memoir of the period from April 1938 to August 1941. There's an overlap in events between the two, but 'Night Shift' was published first, which I guess is why it comes first in this edition but I'd actually recommend reading 'It Was Different At The Time' before 'Night Shift'.
'It Was Different At The Time' provides a whole lot of context for 'Night Shift' and expands on what we know of Holden's views about the people she's working with - she's sympathetic but unsentimental about the people she meets. It's a view of London's working class women that's often absent from the more common middle class memoires and diaries of the period that have come my way.
I found 'It Was Different At The Time' more compelling as well, the Monday chapter of 'Night Shift' was interesting but it didn't suck me in, which is probably why it took me so long to get round to reading this properly, by contrast I raced through 'It Was Different At The Time' which is now full of underlining's and I want to read the first half of this book again armed with the understanding the second half has given me.
Blitz aside the thing that really struck me about 'Night Shift' is how little has changed for women working in menial jobs. The concerns about wages being paid properly, the way they talk and complain, the relationship with the men in charge, and their relationships with each other will all be familiar to anybody who has worked in a low paid job with a lot of other people, especially a lot of other women. Other people must have written about this, but I can't think of another example off hand of anyone doing it with the empathy or respect that Holden does.
'It Was Different At The Time' is fascinating because it records the build up to the war and different attitudes - there's a bit about racism that seems particularly relevant to our contemporary world, and Holden's London is perhaps surprisingly multi-cultural, certainly compared to films, tv series, and all those other middle class accounts I've read. It shows more of Holden herself too, and the different social worlds she flits in and out of.
One of the joys of Handheld books is that they come with excellent introductions, notes, and in this case a list of works cited and further recommended reading. Kristin Bluemel does a brilliant job of introducing Holden and laying out the salient points of her life - she is someone I'd like to know much more about. I really recommend reading this both for how good it is and because of the slightly different perspective it brings to territory that turns out not to be as familiar as I'd come to think.