Nella Last’s War was my favourite read from 2010, and when I tell you that Nella Last’s Peace is more of the same, then that should tell you how impressed I was by it. (Thank you Profile Books for sending it to me.) True, I didn’t warm to it quite as much, and I’m not sure it’s of quite such historical importance, but it is only repetition that will inevitably place this book lower on my reads of 2011 – last year I was expecting mediocrity and was bowled over; this year I expected Nella Last to be as good as she is.
For those who have thus far missed the whole Nella Last phenomenon, she was a ‘Housewife, 49’ (to quote the television adaptation title) when she signed up to write for the Mass Observation project. Every Friday Last posted her diaries away, recording the everyday life she observed so shrewdly, and in such plain but crafted language. Actually, ‘crafted’ is the wrong word – it seems to have just flown from her pen. ‘And what he thought,’ as the First Folio editors said of Shakespeare, ‘he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.’ Except with Nella Last it was true.
I said at the top that Nella Last’s Peace might be less historically significant than Nella Last’s War, but I’m already beginning to doubt that statement. Although the war years were doubtless more momentous, they are also well documented. The earliest peace years, with its hardships and regrets, has given birth to far fewer records – but Nella Last kept going, indefatigably.
Without her war work in the canteen, and with different anxieties concerning her boys, Nella mostly turns her attentions to her recalcitrant husband, large circle of neighbours, and everyday life when money is scarce and rationing in full flow. She grows more impatient with her husband (I start to sympathise with him at times!), and readier to give her friends the rough side of her tongue, but remains practical, thoughtful, and a force of commonsense to be reckoned with. There are any number of activities and opinions I could quote from her diaries, but I’d be in danger of typing out the whole lot. Instead I’ll quote a trip to the Lake District which shows how gifted a writer Last was – not solely as an observer of people and pastimes, but in a strain which is almost poetic:
My husband had to go to Ulverston and we decided to go on to have a look at frozen Windermere, if the roads were not too bad. We felt a queer awe at the steel grey sheet that was the friendly rippling lake of summer – it looked austere and remote. The sun was smiling behind a shoulder of a hill, and its slanting rays seemed to lick out every shorn hillside, every ugly gaping gully where trees had been dragged to the road. There was not a sound anywhere. An awful stillness seemed on everything and that queer atavistic desolation gripped me. I felt I wanted to lift my voice in a wild ‘keen’, if only to break the silence We seemed the only living and moving things left on the earth. I felt thankful to leave the unfamiliar scene. The hills around were patched rather than crowned with snow. The fields were white instead of freshly ploughed as they should have been by March, and heaps of dung stood frozen and useless. I wonder if it will mean a bad crop and harvest, with so late a season. Heavy sullen clouds rolled in from the sea, looking as if we would have more snow, and we were glad to get home to a fire and our tea, with the table drawn close to it.
One thing I wish I could do is reach across the decades and reassure Nella Last that she is a talented writer – and that her writings would not be forgotten. Here is a glimmer that she understood this herself – and yet the terrible fact that she did not realise her own worth and the books which would eventually be published!
As she later writes, ‘whatever else that one is or has been, there’s never been a trace of dullness!’ It is evident to me that the lack of dullness has little to do with events, and everything to do with Last herself. She is a fine example of making the most of any situation – and an even better example of the powers of keen observation. To her perceptive eye, nothing could be dull – and we are forever lucky that she kept this diary for so many years.