Last, Nella: Nella Last’s War

IntroducingNella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49’”, the proposer said that “Mass-Observation” was a United Kingdom social research organisation founded in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, poet Charles Madge and film-maker Humphrey Jennings. Their work ended in the mid 1960s, but was revived in 1981. The Archive was now housed at the University of Sussex.

Mass-Observation began after King Edward VIII’s abdication in 1936 to marry Wallis Simpson. Dissatisfied with the pronouncements of the newspapers about the public mood, the founders initiated a nationwide effort to document the feelings of the people. In August 1939 Mass-Observation invited members of the public to record and send them a day-to-day account of their lives in the form of a diary. They gave no special instructions to these diarists, so the diaries vary greatly in their style, content and length. 480 people responded to this invitation, one of whom was Nella Last (1889 –1968).

Nella Last was a housewife who lived in Barrow-in-Furness. An edited version of the two million words or so she wrote during World War II was originally published in 1981 as “Nella Last’s War: A Mother’s Diary, 1939-45” and republished as “Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of ‘Housewife 49′” in 2006. A second volume of her diaries, “Nella Last’s Peace: The Post-war Diaries of Housewife 49”, was published in October 2008  and a third volume “Nella Last in the 1950s” appeared in October 2010.  Some critics see in her diaries a proto-feminism that anticipates the post-war women’s movement in her account of her own marriage and her liberation from housewifery through her war work.

The daughter of local railway clerk John Lord, Nella was married, on 17 May 1911, to William Last, a shopfitter, and had two sons, Arthur and Cliff. During the war she worked for the Women’s Voluntary Service (W.V.S) and the Red Cross. The wartime diaries were dramatised by Victoria Wood for ITV in 2006 as Housewife, 49, which is how she headed her first entry at the age of 49. Her son Clifford Last (1918–1991) emigrated to Australia following the war and went on to become a noted sculptor, with works displayed at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

So how did the Group feel about Nella Last’s diaries? Most – though not all – had very much enjoyed the book. There were many dimensions to it, and different dimensions appealed particularly to different people.

One was that of her relationship with her husband. It was a remarkable record of a woman living in close proximity with a husband for whom she felt, if you believed her, nothing other than resentment. The ebb and flow of their daily exchanges was carefully charted, and her relief at being able to sleep in a separate room. It was funny, sad and very honest. According to her internal narrative of her life, his lack of support – plus the disapproval of his family – had caused her to have a breakdown. She even drew a comparison between her “subjection” and political subjection. He had been an aggressor, perhaps not unlike Hitler, and she had colluded in her subjection. Her extensive voluntary work during the War, plus perhaps the process of reflection encouraged by the diary writing, had allowed her to break away from her “slavery”, and this had led to her being held up as an example of a proto-feminist.

“But why this ‘Lords of Creation’ attitude on men’s part?….A growing contempt for men in general creeps over me….I’m beginning to see I’m a really clever woman in my own line…”

Similarly there was the close-up view of her relationship with her two sons. Particularly early on in the book, it was clear that the relationship with her sons was providing her with the affection denied in her marriage. That with Cliff, the son who went to war, was particularly intense (“Cliff’s signet ring was pushed on to my third finger”), and it soon becomes apparent to the modern reader that Cliff must be homosexual. Although the family is introduced to his “very close friend”, who is later killed in the war, Cliff is unable to come out.  Nor do his parents suspect. This appears to be a considerable tragedy of misunderstanding, one that must have been repeated many times in the era. Cliff goes off abroad at the end of the War to become a sculptor in Australia, and only returns for a period when his parents are near death.

Cliff’s “Afterword” – written in 1989, eight years after the publication of “Nella Last’s War” and two years before his death – is fairly wry and detached. It must have been particularly difficult for him to read the diaries (his brother had predeceased his mother and was dead before the diaries were published). For example, there are passages such as this from 10 May 1945:

 “I’ve begun to take a ‘so far and no further’ attitude with that crab of a Cliff. He must not let illness be an excuse to be rude, discourteous and downright disagreeable. I’ve told him so very plainly – and a few other things. I had one of my ‘soap-box’ fits on V.E. Day. Perhaps I was a little bit unstrung, but I could see little reason for Cliff’s attitude. I tore the rosy rags he had draped around a few of his illusions…..He was not at all pleased, but the little storm passed in laughter. He said I was a ‘queer little bugger’, and I said, ‘I resent that. A childish vision of a bugger was of a thing with one leg that went bump in the night…”

We were struck and surprised by the fact that Nella did not “self-censor” her diaries in the way that most people of her generation would have done. Perhaps she was unaware that they would ever be published? Or did it fit with her personality not to care what people would think if she by that time would be dead?

The War itself, as experienced on the Home Front, intrigued most of us. True, there was little new in the way of factual information about what happened, but for most of us it was new to get a sense of how it felt to live through that period. One surprise was how little celebration and what a sense of anti-climax there was on VE and VJ Days (“I opened a tin of pears”).

It was also striking how often Nella referred back to her experience of the First World War:

“How swiftly time has flown since the first Armistice. I stood talking to my next-door neighbour, in a garden in the Hampshire cottage where I lived for two years during the last war. I felt so dreadfully weary and ill, for it was only a month before Cliff was born. I admired a lovely bush of yellow roses, which my old neighbour covered each night with an old lace curtain, to try and keep them nice so that I could have them when I was ill. Suddenly, across Southampton water, every ship’s siren hooted and bells sounded, and we knew the rumours that had been going round were true – the war was over. I stood before that lovely bush of yellow roses, and a feeling of dread I could not explain shook me. I felt the tears roll down my cheeks, no wild joy, little thankfulness…”

This was a salutary reminder that someone of her generation – aged 49 going into the Second World War – had already had to live through another World War. She would have been 24 at the beginning of the First War.

The sheer normality of much of the life that was going on – the strikes and the unemployment – was surprising. Once the Blitz with its bombing of Barrow had stopped, and the threat of an invasion had thus faded, there did not seem to be much fear amongst people that the Allies would lose the War.

However, the sense of scrimping, saving and making do to continue to eat and to live was forcibly depicted throughout the book. Nella’s pride in putting together dishes from very limited ingredients was also of interest to those of us who cooked (but less so to those who retained slaves to perform this function).

We were struck by Nella’s efforts to empathise with those afflicted by bombing and starvation in other countries, and she showed remarkable imagination in doing so. Even her applauding early on of Hitler’s gassing of lunatics – which shocks a modern reader who has the benefit of hindsight, and which would have been edited out of any other diary – seems to be little more than support for euthanasia.

It was intriguing to watch how easily she could move from the mundane to the philosophical and back again. Her thoughts on the discovery of Belsen show both her capacity for empathy and for a sophistication of thought surprising in a largely self-taught woman from Barrow:

Did their minds go first, I wonder, their reasoning, leaving nothing but the shell to perish slowly, like a house untenanted? Did their pitiful cries and prayers rise into the night to a God who seemed as deaf and pitiless as their cruel jailers? I’ve a deep aversion to interference, having suffered from it all my life till recent years. I’ve always said, ‘Let every country govern itself, according to its own ways of thought and living. Let them develop their own way and not have standards forced upon them’…Now I see it would not do. This horror is not just one of war. No power can be left so alone that, behind, a veil of secrecy, anything can happen.”

 There was unanimity in applauding Nella’s prose style, for example:

The garden is wakening rapidly, and I can see signs of blossom buds on my three little apple-trees… A blackbird seems to be building nearby – she has been busy with straw all day today – and now the old tree at the bottom of the next-door garden shows buds against the blue sky. My husband had a night off work and said he really must get another row of peas and potatoes in…The moon swam slim serene among the one-way pointing, silvered barrage balloons – I thought it dreadful when I once saw a Zeppelin against the moon. As I stood gazing up at the sky, I wondered if she had ever looked on so strange a sky occupant before…I do so dread these next few nights till the full moon. Tonight, with a slim crescent, it was clear and bright. Some poor city will suffer.

She could pen surprisingly fine lyrical passages of natural description, particularly when visiting the Lake District, which is her escape from urban Barrow and the War. It was difficult to imagine she had any time to polish any such prose, but that left it with a fresh, natural quality. She also had a fine ear for speech, and peppered the diaries with lively phrases that she had heard that day.

 Another dimension of interest in the book Nella’s development: how Nella grows in self-confidence and initiative as the War proceeds and she throws herself into supporting the war effort. She starts with the WVS Centre, takes on more with the canteen, and finally sets up a shop to help the Prisoners of War Fund. She clearly had entrepreneurial skills, which in different circumstances might have been very important to the shape of her life.

The book was also not without humour – for example in her account of the baby that arrived in a brown paper bag, or in her response to the request to write about the sexual mores of the time (“do you want me before I get dressed?”)

So…Nella Last, creative, witty, altruistic, energetic, beautiful writer, enchained by a man…a downtrodden Saint?

Well, not for all. A minority voice did not entirely take to Nella as a person (while still very keen on the book). Always a victim, always right. Insecurely recording every compliment. A rather spiky person, disparaging her colleagues – and look at the Ena Sharples body language in some of the photos. No wonder her husband kept taking her off to the Lake District to calm her down.

Well, steady on, she does show some self–awareness – e.g. “I had one of my soap-box fits” and her imaginative empathy of the plight of other people in the War is quite exceptional….

Good at empathising with people in other countries, indeed, but no empathy whatsoever with her husband, and no understanding of her favourite son when he comes back shot in the groin…

And would a man’s diary ever be published if he were so consistently dismissive of his wife? Or if he accused her of not understanding the offside rule….?

(Well, I never! So unreconstructed some people are! Let’s leave them debating, crack open the St Emilion, and continue reading some more Nella… She’s my favourite)….

This morning I lingered over my breakfast, reading and re-reading the accounts of the Dunkirk evacuation. I felt as if deep inside me was a harp that vibrated and sang – like the feeling on a hillside of gorse in the hot bright sun, or seeing suddenly, as you walked through a park, a big bed of clear, thin red poppies in all their brave splendour. I forgot I was a middle-aged woman who often got up tired and who had backache. The story made me feel part of something that was undying and never old…”