Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 08 Aug 2017

Ladies May Now Leave Their Machine by Diana Murray Hill

Although Diana Murray Hill is careful to say in her short preface that this is a work of fiction and that the individual characters are not real people, this is in truth a factual memoir in which the identity of people has been protected but the events described are certainly very real.

Descriptions of life on the Home Front during World War Two is a genre that is frequently dominated by male writers and the content is often centred on the life-threatening perils associated with being a civilian in a time of total war. What is pretty rare is to have a book written by a woman that tells the unvarnished truth about what it was like to find yourself doing your bit for the war effort working in what was effectively a conscripted day-job in a munitions factory.

Published by The Pilot Press in 1944, the book is narrated by the teenage ‘Diane’ who despite acting as our eyes and ears takes a back seat in her own story and is so self-effacing that we actually learn very little about her - except for the fact that she has a real knack of being able to watch and interpret the lives of those around her. The meat of the book revolves around the friends and enemies that she makes while she is training as an engineer and capstan lathe operator and she draws these profiles with power and verve. Towering over the whole story is the character of her best friend, Lil, a big, confident, brassy Cockney young woman who monopolises any room she walks into. She’s a vamp and a monstrous flirt but, Diane tells us, not free and easy with her physical favours. Lil drifts in and out of relationships with various men until she finally finds Albert – someone equal to her extraordinary character.

Then there’s Lil’s counterpart, Gwen, a small and precise woman who is in her own way also a glamorous figure. Gwen and Lil are oil and water and Diane finds herself caught between the two, constantly trying to avoid having to take sides.

For Di herself, life in the factory is frequently a story of misery. The initial excitement of the early training soon gives way to tedium and the domination of what she always calls ‘THE CLOCK’. Although she rather underplays it, it’s clear that at some point in the course of the narrative  she may even have been made clinically depressed by the 15 hour days, the pressure of the work and the extraordinary claustrophobia of the personal relationships that are being forged.

The pressure to keep the output going becomes a matter of resentment for all the workers and the continual sloganeering through supposedly ‘morale-building’ posters simply makes matters worse. It seems that whatever it is that motivates the women to keep going is, in almost all cases, transient – however well they start their jobs, lassitude and ennui eventually sets in and their output drops away. They begin to make more and more mistakes, breaking machine tools and arguing with foremen or colleagues until they are punished by being moved to even more mindless jobs.

The men in this book are a motley crew of characters who are either excused conscription to the services because of their skills in industry or because they are too old to be called-up. Some become trusted mentors to the women while others become figures of fun – I was personally amused by the fact that Di and Lil’s first encounter with a man of ‘about 50’ results in them immediately nicknaming him ‘The Old Man’ because life in the factory has made him look about 80.

Of course, it’s mainly men who run the factory in management roles and they seem to delight in coming up with stupid and petty rules that can only ever irritate the workforce unnecessarily. One such rule is that women are only allowed very brief visits to the cloakrooms to adjust make-up and ‘tidy’ themselves and compared to the men they get an extra five minutes break to do this before mealtimes. This is a concession that is closely policed and results in the phrase that gives the book its name when it is announced over the factory tannoy.

All the women in Di’s circle crave to get their ‘release’ from the factory – or maybe a transfer to another factory closer to their homes. In the end Diane’s release comes rather abruptly:

Soon after this my health broke down so definitely that I was given my release on medical grounds, so left the neighbourhood.

And we’re told nothing more than this but it seems pretty obvious that the illness is in fact a nervous breakdown.

This is a revealing peep into a world that we usually never get to see unless it’s in uplift Pathe News clips where the happy workers are always having fun toiling to beat Hitler and his Nazi hordes. I always suspected the truth was considerably more mundane than this and Hill’s book certainly confirms that an arduous and punishing war was also fought on the Home Front by women as well as by men in the armed forces. It’s not a literary masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination but its real strength is its authenticity which is undeniable and the fact that it was published a year before the war actually ended showed that the British public was not only looking forward to the celebration of victory but was also ready for a new honesty about what they had just been through.


Terry Potter

August 2017