Sunday, 17 January 2010

Nella Last was an ordinary woman living in the north of England who began to write a diary in 1939 as part of the Mass Observation project. This meant she sent it in every week to be kept with other diaries for posterity. Nella's diaries became particularly famous when Victoria Wood portrayed her in a TV drama, Housewife, 49.

Two volumes have recently been re-published, Nella Last's War and Nella Last's Peace and they deserve to be read and reread, partly because they are an authentic and detailed account of what life (air raids, rationing, fear about sons serving abroad, as well as the more tedious day-to-day stuff) was like during and just after World War II and partly because, as she had dreamt as a child, she became a very good writer.

My balloons (= barrage balloons) swam like silver fish in a blue-grey bowl, and then as the sun sank, they turned to a faint bluish-pink. So odd how one changes ... Always I have loved the moon - tonight I felt a detachment, a sense of menace. No 'peaceful, 'benign', 'serene', 'kindly' moon, as she rose to point the way for devil-bombers, but a sneering, detached Puck who delighted in holding a burglar's lantern.

Nella keeps very busy with a lot of voluntary work, for the WVS, helping run emergency canteens, the hospital committee and organising a Red Cross shop. (After the war, she keenly feels a lack of purpose and a sense of no longer being useful, when these voluntary activities cease.) She is also keen on crafts, making lots of rag-dolls to sell for charity, and is proud of her ability to make varied meals from the meagre food rations of the time. (She lists practically every meal she makes in detail.) Now that her two sons are grown up (either working at a distance or serving in the forces), she sees her main role as the traditional one of a homemaker who looks after after her husband. Unfortunately, she finds this very limiting, and Will, her husband, comes across as rather a reclusive anxious man, who often becomes peevish when Nella wants to go out.

I was surprised at how different Nella appears from Victoria Wood's portrayal in Housewife, 49. More confident and outspoken, at least as she describes herself in the diaries, and certainly better off. The cover of Nella Last's Peace misleadingly shows a street of basic terrace houses, but in fact Nella lived in a large semi and for much of the war and just after it, she and her husband owned a car (very unusual at the time) and made frequent trips to her beloved Lake District (unless petrol rationing made this impossible).

Now that I've finished the diaries I really miss Nella's company and her 'voice' (as so often happens when I read diaries, the diary 'life' seems to run alongside my own). Although the original diaries were written very rapidly in a slightly slapdash stream of consciousness style, Nella has a turn of phrase and narrative voice than really holds the reader's attention. She uses lots of choice words and phrases: 'monkey-shines' for silly, irritating behaviour by others, 'soul-case' meaning 'body', and she often 'gets on her top-note' when arguing with her husband. As in real life, humour, dreary day-to-day routine and tragedy live side-by-side.

Of the two volumes, the war diary has the most impact, simply because of the haunting and inescapable background of war and loss:

The face of a little boy I saw the other day came to me. He is here from Liverpool. He saw his mother and two sisters killed, spent seven nights in a shelter - before and after his home was shattered in Liverpool - and finally was trapped with an elder sister and lay on her dead arm for hours before rescue - and he is seven. His eyes are frenzied and he talks in stutters. If he falls asleep, he wakes in a lather of fright, shaking and screaming. He is lucky - he has come to a kind, understanding aunt - but what of the others? Singing 'Tipperary' in shelters is all right for the BBC but what of all the silent ones?

Thursday, 17 December 1942

I passed the table where Mrs Hockey sits. (Her son was killed in the Middle East in November.) I've thought sometimes, 'Poor darling, how brave she is, she can still smile,' but today I noticed the smile was as forced as that of a painted clown. She caught my overall as I passed, and I bent down while she whispered in a flat tone, 'I got Michael's Christmas card today, Mrs Last'. He said, "Who knows where I'll be at Christmas, Mom",' No tears were in her eyes; the light seems to have faded. I felt pity burn like a flame in me - but I could only hold her hand tightly for a second, and get on with my work.


  1. I loved these books so very much - I came across them as part of my degree and was veyry happy when they brought out the second volume. She's such an intriguing character. I did like the Victoria Wood version - it's not quite like the book but does give quite a good insight...

  2. This sounds so interesting, I'd love to read it. Have you heard of Etty Hillsum? She was a Jewish Dutch woman who also kept a diary during the war years. I have it in my To be read pile and I've heard it's fascinating.

  3. Hi, Verity, Yes, I liked the Victoria Wood play too, but Nella did seem a different character in the diaries themselves. But my diaries probably make me come across as different from the way others see me!
    Hi, Mrs B. Yes, I have heard about Etty's diary and would like to read that one too. I've got Kilvert's diary waiting as well. Good diaries can put life into perspective, can't they?

  4. Yes, I was blown away... first heard Peace on BBC Four and then read War and then bought DVD. I compared the life of Nella with the life of my grandmother on my grandmother, born five years after Nella in Teesdale Durham ended up in Malaya, consorting with Sultans..and all because, I imagine, she was born a few years later than Nella and came of age during WWI and mates were scarce..I said in my blog I can't wait for Nella Last's 50s to hear what she said about Elvis.