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Forgotten authors LUCY LETHBRIDGE recalls the irrepressible Inez Holden

The writer Inez Holden (1903-74) is one of those people who crops up here and there in the memoirs of mid-twentieth century literary lives but whose work seems to have slid inexorably below the cultural radar. She is the shingled, gamine beauty in the centre of a grainy photograph of bright young 1920s people in fancy dress; the lover of Orwell, the tenant of HG Wells, the acquaintance of Anthony Powell and Evelyn Waugh, the friend for 40 years of the equally un-categorizable Stevie Smith.

She seems to have intrigued many (Powell described her allure as ‘consumptive charm’) but, independent to the end, was less interested in her literary legacy than in her continuing preoccupation with observing and enjoying what is odd and strange and poignant in life.

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Now reprints of her wartime writings (Blitz Writing and There’s no Story There) by Handheld Press and of the short stories she wrote for Punch in the 1950s, selected by Jeff Manley and Robin Bynoe for the Anthony Powell Society (Late Stories), bring to modern readers her distinctive and captivating writing voice. Inez was a trooper, writing all her life for money – as a journalist, reviewer, screenwriter, novelist and short story writer – but the work here never seems dashed off: it is funny and serious and, because it is based on her scrupulously close observations of how things are and how people really talk and respond to each other, is slightly off the wall.

Inez came from gentry in Warwickshire and her parents drank, bickered and neglected her. She was probably born in 1903 but no-one bothered to register her birth. Unsurprisingly, she shook her family off as soon as she could and came to London, aged 15, to try her luck as a journalist. From then on, she became arrestingly classless, an outlaw to her parents’ Edwardian bourgeois world.

Although she was always poor, she was good at accumulating the capital of connections and despite her commitment to socialism seems to have been able to move comfortably in all circles.

This is most evident in her wartime diary, It Was Different at the Time, which is a compellingly vivid picture of wartime life, of its covers and fears and subterfuges. Here she is at a dinner party in 1938, where a fellow guest is a German who works for the Reich: ‘The Nazi came into the room like a Labrador dog, half sideways, fawning and smiling. He wanted to pat people on the shoulder, put out his hands to touch them, but not at all costs to risk the refused handshake.’

She worked in a hospital, as a fire watcher, for the BBC and in a munitions factory - the silent, stoic fear of which she captured in two novels, Night Shift (1941) and There’s No Story There (1944-45), both set in a fictional rural factory, Statevale.

Clearly influenced by the work of Mass Observation, they are documentary novels, freeze framing moments of ordinary life and dialogue. Holden’s attention, like a camera, moves in and out, between spoken and unspoken, snatches of thought, activity and conversation, between manual workers, clerks, representatives from the ministries, all of them gathered in a rural factory called Statevale. ‘They talk in a low, unhurried way’, she writes. ‘Here are the thoughts of Julian in There’s no Story There, invalided out of the army to work at Statevale, carrying deadly ‘powder K’ in its leather case: ‘we walk together, along a long black road – powder carriers never walk alone – like a flunkey for death, sneaker-shoed Lofty waits on me now; he must open the doors; he must see that no one bumps into me…’

Inez wrote several stories for Anthony Powell when he was literary editor of Punch from 1953 to 1959 – and we see in Late Stories the same taste for refreshing a moment of bathos or a conversational old saw with an odd angle or a new slant. Powell didn’t rate her novels but co-editor Robin Bynoe writes that The Owner, published in 1952, is ‘beautifully written, convincing, compelling and deeply weird.’ A candidate for reprinting perhaps. When she died in 1974, Inez had outlived most of her contemporaries and was living frugally in Belgravia. Powell wrote a tribute to her that year in which he said he had had reports of sightings of her in the neighbourhood wearing ‘stray adjuncts of military uniform;’ and recalled, with pleasure, her outstanding talents as a mimic.

Her cousin Celia Goodman followed this up 20 years later with a delightful memoir in the London Magazine. Despite many suitors, Inez had never married but lived a life of trenchant and pleasurable independence, free of the complexes one might have expected from her awful childhood. She dressed in raffish charity shop clothes, lived in domestic chaos and her idea of cooking was ‘a neck of lamb, a gallon of water and some unwashed potatoes.’ ‘A compulsive newspaper reader and TV viewer, she would become obsessed by subjects the papers were running – say, sexchange or computer dating – and talk of these without cease throughout a whole luncheon or dinner.’

In the 1960s, she went undercover writing an article about working in Marks & Spencer. It was ‘the neverfailing fascination of life’ which kept her going.