I’ve mentioned a couple of times on here about Nella Last’s War, which I’ve been reading gradually for a few months. I knew that I was one of the last (no pun intended) to pick this up, but hadn’t realised that it was first published back in 1981 – before I was born! So it’s taken me my whole life so far, but I’m delighted to have finally come upon this – I’ll be very surprised if it doesn’t feature in my favourite books of 2010.
For those not in the know (or thought it was Nella’s Last War – or, like me, confused Nella Last with Nella Larsen) this diary is taken from a Mass Observation diary compiled by ‘Housewife, 49’ Nella Last during World War Two. She documents the war from the perspective of a mother in Northern England, with solider-age sons (Cliff and Arthur), living a fairly ordinary life with an ordinary husband in an ordinary neighbourhood.
But this diary is anything but ordinary. Though Nella did not think herself a clever woman, nor believe that she had fulfilled her half-held ambition to be a writer, she has a quite astonishing gift. I’ve read quite a few diaries and letters and similar, but only Virginia Woolf compares – they both have an intelligent voice, a way of describing everyday events with unusual images or perceptive insights which reveal so much about them. Unlike most people’s diaries (certainly unlike mine) there is little repetition, no undue introspection, no references to unknown people who appear and disappear. True, these may have been edited (I don’t know how substantially) but had Nella Last intended to write a novel, the structure, and precision in her language, couldn’t be bettered.
And of course, the period was not uneventful. I find reading about major events from an individual’s perspective so illuminating.
Wednesday night, 5 June, 1940
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 – like a flame to light or warm, but strong enough to burn and destroy trash and rubbish. It was a very hot morning and work was slowed a little, but somehow I felt everything to be worthwhile, and I felt glad I was of the same race as the rescuers and rescued.I could quote so much from this book, but I’m just going to give you another – one of my favourite excerpts, a beautiful passage, all the more beautiful because it is from true experience, and not a honed image from a novel.
Saturday, 6th November, 1943
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. Oddly enough, Cliff has never liked yellow roses. When he was small, he once said they made him feel funny, and his remark recalled my little Hampshire garden and the first Armistice. Now Cliff is in another war – and we called it the ‘war to end all war.’
A year or so ago Nella Last’s Peace was published, which carries on her diaries until 1965 – Our Vicar’s Wife has a copy, so I’ll borrow it from her at some point. I didn’t see the TV programme Housewife, 49, based on Nella Last’s War, with the rather wonderful Victoria Wood – but apparently it was rather good. Which is only fitting for a book, and a woman, so exceptional as Nella Last. As a diary, it can scarcely be bettered – and as a perspective on the Second World War from the home front, this book is invaluable and should be read for many years to come.