25 April 2013

Nella Last's War edited by Patricia & Robert Malcolmson

Stories about daily life from the Home Front fascinate me.  I think it has something to do with the paradoxical notion of child-rearing and hanging out the wash during the day while dodging bombs from warplanes at night.  The pride to be had in a bountiful table while queueing for rations in the afternoon.  Mesmerizing images of women clad in feminine prints and high heels daintily scouting a route through the rubble that is their village without the slightest hint of shock.  Domestic soldiers.

Nella's writings weren't exactly on my mind, Delafield and Bowen were, but when I saw this book in a second-hand shop in Charing Cross Road last October I didn't think twice.  It contains excerpts from the diaries she kept from 1939 - 1965 as part of a Mass Observation project and is divided into two parts: War and Peace.  At this point I've only read her writings from during the war as that is what interests me most but plan to go back for more soon.

Beginning her writings with the headline Housewife, 49 (her age) Nella describes her thoughts about a war which at first seems a million miles away from Barrow-in-Furness.  Her eldest son Arthur is training to be a tax inspector while living in Manchester and his brother Cliff is about to be called into service.  Her husband, Will, would appear to be one of the most frustrating stick-in-the-mud types you could ever meet.

'It's a good thing that my husband likes his bed and insists I go up when he does.  I feel so over strung tonight I 'could fly' and know if left alone would have gone on sewing - silly to knock oneself up so early.'

Nella's writing must have been quite therapeutic as well as a documentary on life during wartime.  Her voice is very much that of a woman frustrated by the confines of marriage.  In many ways, the war provided an arena for her to utilize her organizational abilities and if she couldn't exude much in the way of control at home she could at the Red Cross canteen.  Her discerning eye taking in every aspect from how much food 'the conchies' (conscientious objectors) got at mealtimes to the slipping standards of women in their dress...

'I could not help but think that many women are seizing the excuse of there 'being a war on' to give full rein to all the sloppy lazy streaks in their make-up.  When the raids were on anything could be understood or forgiven - but WHY NOW?  Surely it's best to try and keep on as usual and not let go and grow careless and untidy?'

One of the vignettes from the book that stood out for me is of one of the ladies helping out at the canteen and her expanding girth.  The fact that her husband had been absent for over a year while she had a close friendship with a South African officer was cause for much speculation.  Once she realized her changing shape was being sized up she announced a case of fibroids and wore her coat over her dress for the duration.  The fact that there is a wire cage in the front room to sleep under, cracks in the walls from bomb blasts and food shortages to deal with were just part of life but if social mores were deviated from it would amount to endless conversation.  Even the editors of her diaries note that the amount of gossip was extensive at times but if I'm honest it makes for some of the best reading.

Nella was extremely proud of her domestic skills and would clean alongside her cleaning lady.  Even if her husband was a bore she still worked tirelessly to put on as grand a spread for him as she could at dinnertime....

'I opened a small tin of grapefruit and served it first and then the roast lamb, baked potatoes and brown gravy and lots of lovely sweet sprouts from the garden.  Then jellied apple pie, warm and fragrant with custard sauce....Everything was perfection and I could have purred like a happy cat.'

For Nella at least, and perhaps many women, the war was a chance to shine.  It was an equalizer for those who became head of their household and young ladies who worked at the Yard alongside the men in trade.  I have to say that at times I did find Nella's 'high and mighty' opinions a bit tiresome but overall the glimpses into her life were very interesting and insightful - not to mention addictive.  Like eating a bowl of chips it was hard to stop and one entry would easily cascade into the next and the tasks needing attention on my own homefront were neglected.

My favourite war diary from one of England's 'domestic soldiers' remains to be Vere Hodgson's No Eggs and Few Oranges for its blitz spirit and images of London but first-hand stories from this era are finite and all are priceless.

Nella Last


  1. I've always thought that Nella was one of those ladies you'd instantly make friends with; and then very quickly find yourself crossing the road to avoid her. Love the diaries, though!
    Some years back, I spent a few days working in the MO archive at Brighton, going through boxes and boxes of diaries. I think it's still going on, but blogging has probably made it somewhat redundant.

    1. You've hit the nail on the head! There was also something about the confident way in which she praised herself (and her small size 3 feet) that made me wince a bit. But if you can't vent and praise in your own diary then where can you?!

      That's fascinating, Mary! What a sight it must have been to stand there amidst so many boxes full of stories. You have no idea just how many times I envy you!

  2. Oh I really want to read these - thank you for reminding me about them.

    1. We are only too happy around here to keep your bedside table full of books!

  3. You'll just have to look for The love-charm of bombs, the book that Fleur told us about. I only had time to read the first few chapters before I had to return it to the library, but I was hooked.

    1. Oh Audrey, I am SO excited for my copy to arrive in July! It's one of those books that I'll probably start reading as soon as the packaging has been ripped open. Hope you placed another hold on your library's copy...

  4. You should look out for These Wonderful Rumours!: A Young Schoolteacher's Wartime Diaries 1939-1945 By May Smith.

    1. My lovely friend, Mary, told me about that book when it came out. I haven't spied a copy around here but it's on my amazon wishlist as a reminder. Thanks for mentioning it!

  5. I think Mary's idea of Nella (above) is absolutely perfect! I loved Nella's writing when I read this but took against her in the strongest way. And thanks for the reminder that I need to finally read the Hodgson!

    1. Mary made me laugh with that image - she's spot on! Oh Claire, if you have Vere's book lying around you need to get it off of the shelf and soon. It's wonderful and despite its bulk you won't want it to end!

  6. I also love Mary's image! I adore this book utterly, but reading the sequel (Nella Last's Peace) I still thought the writing was wonderful, but felt a lot more sympathy for her husband...

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