This novel gives an account of the experience of a group of men and women working in a munitions factory (‘Blimpton’, near the town of Dustborough) during the Second World War. Felton supplies a detailed, not to say exhaustive picture of the innumerable challenges involved in managing such a site, intermingled with the inevitable and necessary human dramas. The place itself, located, we learn, ‘so far away from anywhere as to be, for all practical purposes, nowhere’ is introduced as follows:
[…] if you are one of the people who know that they ought to be doing something about the war and can’t think quite what, then, for such is the way things are ordered, if you haven’t been sent to Blimpton yet the probabilities are that you will find yourself there before the war is over
There is of course an irony in the fact that a place as ostensibly remote and self-contained as Blimpton comes into being precisely in response to events in the wider world; a fact not lost on factory superintendent, Dan Morgan. Morgan is among the more prominent of the characters, and (credibly or otherwise) voices many of the novel’s more trenchant observations. In chapter XV, for example, we find him bemoaning the perceptible lack of ‘real’ community at the factory:
‘[…] Ask anyone has lived in one of these places. The people are just dropped there, like flowers bedded out in a public park. They have no roots. They look all right – but so do we… they eat and sleep and make love in their tidy little boxes – but you can’t say that they live in them, because the fact is that they simply don’t know what it is to be alive … we’ve been given the dregs of a social brew that was already stale when I was a boy, and we’re content to allow these people to muddle along, totally unaware of the world that they’re living in now’.
It is in such passages that the author’s own political activism (together with as her occupation as a town planner) shows through, and it seems clear that Felton is writing with the shape of things to come at least partly in mind. Clearly, though, much of the motivation behind the novel consists in laying before readers the ‘nitty-gritty’ of life on the ground. Details are given of multiple aspects of the factory’s operations, conveying along the way something of the ‘all in it together’ ethos so integral to life on the home front (though as the above speech indicates, this is not without equivocation). Such is emphasized in the assistant superintendent’s defusing of a nascent ‘workers vs. management’ dispute, showing them instead ‘a factory that was theirs as well as his’. Indeed, Felton is at pains to stress that in spite of various tensions and misgivings, here is a place very much at the epicentre of the national war effort. She offers, for example, the following description of the workers gathering to leave at the end of the day:
Voices rose and fell, monosyllabic, tired; in the dark they seemed to come from nowhere; they were like the voices of England, all gathered together in one place: lively cockney voices, breaking into shrillness; the slow, cold tones of the midlands, flat and unaccented; the singing voices of Wales, and the chipped, rough accents of Lancashire; soft, blurred country voices from twenty counties mingled into the chatter, the laughter, the sudden brief screams of townspeople lost in the darkness, homeless, fierce in their desire for rest, warmth and comfort.
Felton does enlist an extensive cast of characters to help enumerate the various logistical, political and practical problems of transport, accommodation, health, entertainment and general morale, giving the sense that here indeed is wartime society in microcosm, with its attendant foibles, tensions and conflicting interests. There is of course always the risk that the subject matter can at times make for rather dry reading, and there are occasions when this is the case, with delineation of character frequently playing second-fiddle to the general sense of being down in the thick of events, facing a never-receding coalface of practical problems. Yet the tyranny of pragmatism is surely one of the core themes in any case, and overall Felton does offer a lucid snapshot of one of the arguably less familiar corners of the home-front.