Tuesday 4 June 2019

Handheld: The Return

Last year I posted about Handheld, a new publisher bringing back neglected but excellent books into print. Since then they have gone from strength to strength, resurrecting great books by the likes of Rose Macauley (her forgotten SF novel, no less) and Sylvia Townsend Warner, and also publishing new work by wonderful writers like Nicola Griffiths (who early in her career produced two true SF classics, Ammonite and Slow River) and Eddie Thomas Petersen.

A number of years ago, the Furrowed Middlebrow blog mentioned a book that sounded like just my thing: Inez Holden's Night Shift. A short documentary-style novel about the lives of workers in a Blitz-threatened factory over the course of a week? Sign me up! Unfortunately there was not a single copy for sale online anywhere in the world, not even for ludicrous sums of cash. Every now and then I'd have another look, and every time there would be nothing.

Now Handheld have republished Night Shift, along with Holden's It Was Different at the Time, her diaries of 1938-1941. It's available! It's affordable! It's mine! And it was worth the wait.

Series design by Nadja Guggi

Night Shift has a narrator, but one we learn almost nothing about. Her observations of her fellow workers, their habits and conflicts, their personalities and oddities, are perceptive and sympathetic, but clear-eyed, too. The weird flattening of class and gender differences is noted...

..as is the tribalism between the different shifts.

Holden was obviously drawing from her own experiences of war work, and it reminded me of a more textured, fictionalised version of another forgotten book, Mass Observation's War Work, whcih was actually written by an uncredited Celia Fremlin, the crime writer behind paranoiac classic The Hours Before Dawn. Another one for Handheld to bring back?

In some ways, though Holden's diaries are even better. The daily observations of London life during the Blitz are absolutely fascinating, and drawn with perfectly judged prose: dispassionate and interested. Some examples:

I could read this stuff all day.

Handheld have even more amazing stuff lined up. More Townsend Warner! Vonda N McIntyre! Jan Jacob Slauerhoff! Elizabeth von Arnim! Buy their books now so they can keep publishing stuff for me.