Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Nella Last in the 1950s - ed Patricia & Robert Malcolmson

On the back of this new volume of Nella Last’s Diaries, there’s a quote from Simon Garfield, editor of several collections of Mass Observation diaries. “It’s wonderful to be back in Nella’s world again.” I completely agree! Nella Last was a housewife in Barrow-in-Furness on the west coast of Britain during WWII & after. Her Diary were written for the Mass Observation organisation. In the late 1930s, M-O asked for volunteers to keep a diary of their everyday lives & send it in to the M-O office so that they could get an idea of what ordinary people were thinking. This was in the days before public polling & surveys were taken. Over the last 30 years, several diaries written for M-O have been published as well as themed collections focussing on women’s writing or wartime. Nella’s Diary, begun in the late 30s was kept until the end of her life in the late 1960s. It was one of the most extensive, detailed & compelling accounts of life in Britain in the mid twentieth century. Nella always wanted to be a writer & she would be amazed to think that her Diary,sent off to London every few weeks, has been published.

I find the details of Nella’s domestic life fascinating. I slipped back into Nella’s world very easily when I started reading this latest volume. I read Nella Last’s Peace, the Diary of the late 1940s, earlier this year & I could hardly wait to get hold of this next volume. Nella is in her 60s now. Her sons have left home. Arthur lives in Ireland with his wife, Edith & their sons, Peter & Christopher. Cliff has emigrated to Australia & is a sculptor. Their visits to Barrow during the course of this Diary are great periods of happiness for Nella. She certainly needs her happiness as her everyday life is clouded by the mental illness of her husband, Will. She always refers to Will as “my husband”, occasionally “my poor man”. Will seems to be chronically depressed. Nervous, anti-social, afraid to go out but resentful when Nella does, her life revolves around not upsetting Will. Anything that causes him stress will only make her life more of a burden. She does snap sometimes & tells him a few home truths, getting on her top note, as she calls it. Will’s only pleasure is his car & luckily this means that Nella can frequently get out to the Lake District she loves. Drives to Coniston Water to walk by the lake & eat a picnic are the highlight of her life.

I made custard and stewed some prunes I had, and when I packed tea of cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, a loaf and butter, I put in a jar of fruit salad by adding a few prunes to the stewed apricots and segments of apple. I wanted to change our library books. I got a ‘Crime Club’, and one of Muriel Hines’ novels for my husband, feeling another little thrill of thankfulness when he has settled to reading more, and got used to his glasses better. We went to the Coast Road and sat on a rug on the shingly shore. The tide crept slowly in, no wind at all, and the air heavy with the scent of hay going past on carts and lorries, so lovely and ‘green dried’. We had tea and walked on the sands – it was only low tide – and I settled to read for a while. (Friday 7th July 1950)

This entry really encapsulates Nella’s life. The domestic details of her cooking, planning a trip to the coast or the Lakes, choosing library books (nothing too upsetting or violent for Will), her love of Nature & thankfulness for small blessings such as Will having his new glasses at last so that she doesn’t have to read aloud to him anymore.

Life in Britain in the 50s was pretty bleak. The threat of nuclear war was ever-present. Only a few years after the end of WWII, it was horrifying to think that it could all start again. The beginning of the Korean War was a frightening time as people feared that the US or the USSR would use atomic bombs to resolve the conflict. Memories of the devastation of Hiroshima & Nagasaki haunted Nella. The Women’s Voluntary Service that Nella joined during the War was still going & she went to classes in Civil Defence in the anticipation of another war.

Economically times were hard. Rationing hadn’t ended with the War. Soap, petrol & sugar rationing were still in force during this period & Nella continually complained of the struggle to make ends meet. Will’s retired from work & sold his business, then spent all his time worrying that they were living on capital & their money wouldn’t last them out. Nella had a little income of her own from her father & often says that this kept her sane when Will accused her of spending too much money. She was a very thrifty woman, often listing the costs of goods & how she scrimps & saves to find a cheaper alternative. 

Neighbours & relatives make frequent appearances in the Diary. A neighbour’s daughter-in-law, Sheila, contracts polio. Pregnant & only 23, Sheila is almost completely paralysed. Her sad story is told over several entries & it reminds the reader of how horrible a disease like polio could be. The sudden onset & the paralysis left afterwards. Nella isn’t above making a few censorious comments about neighbours not as thrifty or careful as herself but she’s a caring neighbour, always ready to help friends such as the Helms & the Atkinsons. I’m especially fond of Nella’s Aunt Sarah, an old lady in her 80s who still lives on her own with her cousin, Joe. Aunt Sarah & Joe have very little but never complain, living in the country as they’ve always done.

Aunt Sarah looked like a bundle of old-fashioned clothes. She had been for wood to the hut and begun to peel off an ulster coat of unknown vintage, a woolly wrap and a weird balaclava helmet which left her fluffy grey hair in a bush round her little withered face with its snapping sparkling dark eyes. She welcomed us with a flow of local gossip, all she had read about the King’s death and funeral, world affairs, rising prices etc. My husband said enviously, ‘I wish I had a fraction of her memory and interest in things.’ (Saturday 23rd February 1952)

I’m sure Nella did too! I think Nella used the Diary as a way of releasing the built-up tension of her day. She & Will had separate rooms & she would sit up in bed at night, writing up her Diary. Even so, it’s not just a litany of complaints about Will, her feckless neighbours & the rising price of everything. There’s also much happiness in her sons & grandchildren, Nature, the many craft projects she delights in, her cats, Murphy & Shan We & her good friends. It’s been a great joy immersing myself in Nella’s life again. She has such a distinctive voice & her Diary is a compelling picture of life in 1950s Britain.


  1. This sounds just up my street. This book is not available in our library but there is one known as Post War diaries of Housewife which Iam going to pick up today!

    Thanks for the review.

  2. I have just devoured this - it was fascinating wasn't it? And so very different to the earlier volumes in some ways. I hope they publish more extracts from her diaries at some point. Have you come across the James Hinton book Nine wartime lives which puts 9 MO'ists (including Nella) really into context?

  3. Verity, I've heard of the Hinton book but haven't read it. Another one for the tbr list.

  4. Ooh, do get it - expensive but a keeper - nice to have something intellectual to read sometimes and this really contextualises it all

  5. Lyn you would have adored the Persephone Lecture this week because David Kynaston talked about the crucial importance of 5 women diarists (Vere Hodgson was his 4th, Nella his 5th) and how he realised that what had been dismissed as trivia in the past is now the bread and butter of the social historian's work. I have stopped keeping a diary so many times thinking it seemed so banal and boring but I have started one again this week and this one's staying!

  6. I wish I'd been there! Vere Hodgson is one of my favourite Persephones. Such an indomitable woman. Good luck with the diary, we should probably all do it so there'll be research material for the future. Who knows, maybe our blogs will be used one day by someone researching reading habits of the early 21st century?

  7. I'd love to know what the Viennese rolls were Nella referred to

    1. I'd have thought they were a sweet bread like a cinnamon scroll but I've just Googled & they seem to be many different things. Maybe just a light white roll. We have a Vienna loaf in Australia which is just a very crusty white loaf. Of course, they could have been something completely different in Britain in the 50s.