Nella Last's Peace Find!
Thanks to the wonderful play Housewife 49, written by and starring Victoria Wood, I think a great many people are now familiar with the war diaries of Nella Last, upon which it was based. However, considerably fewer people may know that a second volume of Nella's diaries have been published, which concentrate on the post-war era, entitled Nella Last's Peace.
Nella Last was a housewife, married to Will who had his own joinery and shop fitting business in Barrow in Furness. Will and Nella lived in Ilkley Road with their younger son, Cliff, who was in the Army and their older son, Arthur, who was a tax inspector and thus exempted from conscription.
Barrow-in-Furness is town with a long history of shipbuilding, at the south westerly tip of Cumbria and during the Blitz, it became a target for German bombing.
Nella Last began writing her diary in 1939 for the Mass Observation Project, which had been running since 1937 with the aim of capturing and recording the views of ordinary British people The project recruited volunteer diarists who were tasked with observing British life, and producing a day-to-day account of their lives. Nella was one such recruit, and the title Housewife 49, is how she was described by the Mass Observation Project.
Over 200 diarists contributed to the project, but what is truly outstanding about Nella's diary is the dedication with which she approached the task - over the 30 years she wrote her entries she wrote between 1.5 and 2 million words, making her diary one of the the longest in the English language, and a rich resource for anyone studying the social history of the time it spans. (The diaries are now part of the Mass Observation Archive which is held at the University of Sussex, and it is open to the public.)
It is even more amazing when one considers that her entries were not read until the 1980s, and the first volume of her writings was published as Nella Last's War. I read this book not long after its publication in the 1980s and it is a fascinating read, recounting how Barrow was bombed, and how Nella, as lots of other women, developed lives outside the home either working in jobs which had been vacated by the men going off to fight, or as Nella did, volunteering in the WVS and the Red Cross. I was working in Barrow at the time I read the first volume of her diaries, and it really brought home to me how a small Cumbrian town, and its people, suffered and were affected by events on the larger world stage.
Nella carried out a number of different roles during the war, including weaving and embroidery, setting up canteens for civil defense workers and troops stationed in Barrow, and also working in the Red Cross shop. There is very much a sense that Nella "finds" herself during this period, having had a difficult period of ill-health which might best be described as a breakdown. We see her growing to be a brave, independent, resourceful, and humourous woman who faces the shortages, difficulties, dangers and challenges of war and is made stronger because of them .
However in Nella Last's Peace, her diary shows how women had to revert to their former lives back in the home, as men return to claim the jobs and the volunteering opportunities dry up. It is very much a period of re-adjustment for all women, but especially for Nella, who throws her energies into knitting dolls which were used to raise money for charity, and misses the activity and comradeship of the war years.
The diaries often mention her relationships with both family and friends and also refer frequently to the difficulties in her marriage with her husband Will, as well as her worries about Cliff and Arthur. (Arthur continued to work as a tax inspector and Cliff emigrated to Australia, where he became a noted sculptor.)
Nella also reflects on her extended family, her own history, her trips to the coast and the Lake District, as well as day to day conversations, gossip and scandals. Mixed in with this is an astute and perceptive view of post-war events both nationally and internationally.
The volume of her output is equalled by the quality of her writing, and the entries make you look at Barrow, the surrounding areas and also The Lakes with a deeper understanding and appreciation.
Nella Last's Peace is as equally a fascinating, absorbing, entertaining and informative read as the first volume of her diaries, and I can't recommend them highly enough.
(And as a post script, whilst talking to Mary about this book, she tells me that one of the Kendal Library staff is actually a relative of the Last family!)
27 October 2009 from Helen
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