To All the Living by Monica Felton
“And even here, at Blimpton, we’re getting to understand – some of us – what it is that we are after”. It is a brave statement about a wartime munitions factory which has been beset with difficulties from its first establishment at the beginning of the Second World War. This is a remarkable novel which was first published in 1945 which looks at the day to day running of a factory dedicated to the filling of shells and other weapons of war. It is a big book, which really examines the details of those drawn together with a common purpose, to produce the military hardware for the British Forces who are the only major opposition which is holding up Hitler’s ambitions in 1941. Not that all the workers and management work together at all times; there are those working to further their own interests, those whose civil service experience and pride mean they do things their way whatever the need, those who are desperate for work and a place to live.
One of the main problems is the lack of women workers, and the novel goes into a lot of detail via certain characters why this should be so. Monica Felton worked for the Ministry of Supply during the War, so had first hand knowledge of the bureaucratic nonsense that was prevalent even at a time of national emergency. This is a book which flows well and introduces some very realistic characters as well as representing the ongoing sense of frustration which was involved in so many organisations. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this special and memorable book which is so well written.
The book opens with a description of Blimpton, a place which is “so far away from anywhere as to be, for all practical purposes, nowhere.” At a railway station a young woman arrives to search for a way of getting to Blimpton, who evidently rejoices in the name of Griselda Green. She is self – possessed, but it is a small place and the weather is bleak. She discovers another young woman, Kitty Baldwin, who introduces herself as a recent widow. These two form part of a larger group who turn up at Blimpton, a vast, nearly invisible complex of half completed, half invisible factory spaces. They are a tiny part of the women who are needed for the essential processes that are demanded by the Ministry, still a voluntary and underpaid group who are seen as numbers by the management, reluctant to turn up, actually work and stay. The processes are poorly supported in terms of essential materials, working set up and in the danger of injury and disease from explosive ingredients. The work is not always there to be done, due to shortages and unpredictable demand for certain weapons. It is at best dull and repetitive, and must be carried out in a ‘clean’ setting where uniforms must be worn and personal items such as lipsticks are strictly forbidden. Travelling to and around the various departments is arduous and often difficult. The living arrangements are in local ‘billits’ or lodgings, where conditions vary.
The management of the establishment is made of those who are less than able, including an inefficient and unsuitable Superintendent and a career civil servant who always has his own agenda. There are those who make real efforts to improve production via improved conditions, but they are up against those too keen to safeguard their own interests to take a broader view.
This book is brought to life by its sparky and realistic characters. Many of the women who are depicted have a real spark about them, even those who are easily led or suffer as a result of the work are individuals. Dan Morgan is a memorable character whose own relatively poor background has led him to achieve great things, but he is ambitious for more, to make Blimpton an effective place for production and those who work there. His vulnerability is well drawn, as well as those who work around him. I recommend this book which had slipped into obscurity but is now made available once more as part of the Imperial War Museum Wartime Classics series.