Friday, March 19, 2010

Nella Last's peace - ed P & R Malcolmson

Nella Last was a housewife in Barrow in Cumbria. She wrote a diary for the Mass Observation program beginning in 1939 & continuing until almost the end of her life. Mass Observation was an organisation which set out to discover the opinions of everyday citizens on all aspects of their lives. In the words of the editors of Nella’s diary, “MO aimed to lay the foundations for a social anthropology of contemporary Britain.” MO was made possible by the hundreds of volunteers who wrote diaries & responded to questionnaires on specific topics. Nella’s diary was one of the longest continuous records received by MO. She posted off her diary every week or fortnight without fail. The diary became a lifeline for her; it allowed her to use her untapped talents as a writer. What began as almost a duty became a pleasure. No matter how exhausted or ill she felt at the end of the day, she almost always ended the day in bed writing up her diary. Nella called herself Housewife, 49 (her age when she began writing) & her wartime diary was recently made into a movie of that name. Nella Last’s Peace is the record of the years after WWII. It’s a period that has only recently become a focus of interest. Several books have been written about the immediate post-war period. I can think of Maureen Weller’s London 1945, Alan Allport’s Demobbed & David Kynaston’s massive Austerity Britain. The end of the war didn’t bring the immediate joy that many may have expected. Weariness seemed to be the dominant feeling. Rationing continued & in some cases even grew more restrictive; returned servicemen & women found work hard to find; houses were expensive & sometimes jerry built; relationships had to be renegotiated between husbands, wives & children who had been separated for years & who had had very different experiences of the war. Women like Nella who had found a sense of purpose through volunteer work during the war were at a loose end when they were no longer needed. Nella hadn’t experienced the tragedy of losing anyone close to her in the war, but her sons were living far from home – Arthur & his wife, Edith, in Belfast & Cliff emigrated to Australia after he was demobbed. Her relationship with her husband, Will, is a fraught one. Will is taciturn, almost a recluse who dislikes socialising & is only really happy when he can come home from work to a hot meal & a silent evening working on his accounts. Nella is the opposite. She feels stifled at home without the legitimate excuse of war work to take her out of the house. She would like to invite friends & neighbours home but knows that Will would be unwelcoming & resentful. Their regular car trips to the countryside seem to be the only time when they are truly in tune with each other and even then, Will wants to buy a portable radio to take with them while Nella enjoys the peaceful communing with nature. What I especially loved reading about was Nella’s endless contriving with food. She describes the food she prepares, the queuing for rations, the juggling of coupons, the excitement when word goes around that some delicacy will be available, the stretching of scarce foods by using leftovers for another meal. The detail is fascinating. Nella & Will are also helping to support their elderly relations & Nella makes up a parcel of goodies every week for her Aunt Sarah. They also have to deal with Will’s mother’s sad decline with dementia after his father’s death. All this domestic detail is wonderful. I loved being part of Nella’s life again after reading Nella Last’s War a couple of years ago. If you enjoy reading about the Home Front in Britain, I recommend both of Nella’s diaries.


  1. I was so excited when this came out having loved Nella Last's War as part of my degree. Have you spotted that a third volume is being produced in the Autumn?

  2. My Mum has a copy, I think, and will borrow soon... I was so impressed by Nella Last's War, as you know.

  3. Thank you for that welcome news Verity. I'll be preordering from the Book Depository very soon!

  4. This is the first time I've seen your blog and so I have been wading through older posts. What a lovely blog it is! Being a bookaholic, too, it's always lovely to hear of others' book habits and know about their favourite authors and books. I enjoyed seeing Nella Lar's War on TV as a drama with Victoria Wood as Nella but, as yet, have not read the books. However, I looked down far enough to see you enjoy the books of Barbara Pym. Perhaps you also read the mystery novels of her friend and colleage, Hazel Holt? She is an excellent writer in her own right - her books feature retired academic and widow, Mrs Sheila Malory who lives close to the town of Taviscombe (aka Minehead, Somerset), a name coined by her friend, Barbara.
    Are those your own books on the photo at the top of your blog? If they are, like me, you're also a Persephone book collector.
    I hope to look in again soon,
    Margaret P

  5. Thank you Margaret, I'm glad you're enjoying the blog. I only started blogging a few months ago but I'm enjoying it very much. Yes, I love Hazel Holt. I've read all her books & especially enjoy the bits about Sheila's academic work on Charlotte M Yonge, although this is mentioned less in the later books. I read my first Yonge last year, Daisy Chain, & plan to read more one day - the tbr shelves never get any less crowded. I also enjoyed Hazel's biography of Barbara. It's wonderful to see Barbara being reprinted by Virago. It's about time. The books in the photo are mine. I love Persephone Books, I discovered them early & have them all. Persephone has broadened my reading so much, I've discovered so many other middlebrow authors & an online bookgroup that started with a love of Persephones but is now about all things bookish. I hope you visit again.