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Archive for the ‘Richard Broad’ Category

Nella Last’s War edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming was everything other reviewers had promised it would be: eloquent, engaging, and fantastically detailed, it’s an unusually coherent and introspective diary that paints a vivid picture of one woman’s experiences during the Second World War.  For those who are not yet familiar with Last, she was a housewife in Barrow (a shipbuilding town on the Irish Sea) and, more significantly for us, a diarist for the Mass-Observation archive for almost thirty years; in addition to her wartime diaries two other volumes have been published: Nella Last’s Peace and Nella Last in the 1950s.  Indeed, it’s difficult to pick up any recent histories of wartime Britain now that do not include at least a few lines from Last!  She seems to have become the voice of the average civilian during wartime, which, for a woman who never considered herself to be clever and wasn’t particularly educated, would no doubt have amazed her:

21 November 1943: I wonder how high the pile is of letters and M.O. diaries I’ve written.  I bet it would surprise me.  I always longed to be clever and write books.  I bet I’ve written a few in the shape of letters and endless scribbles!

While I found it very difficult to like Last herself, I was always appreciative of how ably she expressed herself in her diaries and how clearly her thoughts came across.  I think I came closest to liking her at the beginning of the war when she was thinking about her younger son Cliff and what the war would mean for him:

6 September 1939: I looked at my own lad sitting with a paper, and noticed he did not turn a page often.  It all came back with a rush – the boys who set off so gaily and lightly and did not come back – and I could have screamed aloud.  I have laughed to myself sometimes, thinking what a surprise – shock too – my rather spoilt lad was to get, but it’s not funny now.  He has such a love of order and beauty, not to say cleanness, and I remember stories they used to tell of the last war, of the dirt and mud in France.

Her reflections on her neighbours and colleagues are also particularly thoughtful, illustrating the personal impacts the war had on families and how disparate and unfair those experiences could be:

19 August 1943: Two women have sat side by side for four years at the Centre, sewing at bandages.  One has lost two sons at sea – and now learns her airman son has to be ‘presumed dead.’  Her daughter had to join the WAAF.  The other one’s three sons work in the Yard – have good jobs – and the daughter of twenty-eight is ‘reserved’, since she is considered necessary as a secretary to a boss in the Yard.  I look round the big room at faces I’ve known and loved for over four years.  My heart aches and, even in that small circle, the bravery and courage, the ‘going on’ when only sons have been killed, when letters don’t come, when their boys are taught to fight like savages if they are commandoes – when they are trained and trained and trained, for bodies to endure, and to go and kill other women’s lads, to wipe all the light from other mother’s faces.

For many readers, particularly female ones, the most striking thing about this diary is Last’s growing independence and emancipation from her husband and home.  Last worked for the WVS and Red Cross during the war, and, like many housewives, found liberation from housework and wifely duties in her new commitments.  Never busier than during the war, Last gained confidence but also contempt for her husband who preferred things as they had been for the first thirty years of their marriage, as he had expected them to always be.  Instead, by the time the war ended Last was practically a new woman and her later entries mark quite a different attitude towards her husband than she exhibited at the beginning:

10 May 1945: I love my home dearly, but as a home rather than a house.  The latter can make a prison and a penance if a woman makes too much of a fetish of cleaning and polishing.  But I will not, cannot, go back to the narrowness of my husband’s ‘I don’t want anyone else’s company but yours – why do you want anyone else?’  I looked at his placid, blank face and marveled at the way he had managed so to dominate me for all our married life, at how, to avoid hurting him, I had tried to keep him in a good mood, when a smacked head would have been the best treatment.  His petulant moods only receive indifference now.  I know I speak sharply at times, I know I’m ‘not the sweet woman I used to be’ – but then I never was!  Rather was I a frayed, battered thing, with nerves kept in control by effort that at times became too much, and ‘nervous breakdowns’ were the result.  No one would ever give me one again, no one.

While I may dislike Nella herself, I loved this book and am so pleased to finally know more about the woman who keeps popping up in all my history books.  Her views on patriotism and duty while particularly frustrating were absolutely fascinating: I’m so used to reading the words of over-educated intellectuals and statesmen on whom propaganda had little effect that to glimpse its impact on those who truly listened, who followed instructions to the very letter of the law, is both surprising and thought-provoking.  Her background is so different to those of my favourite wartime diarists (Virginia Woolf, Harold Nicholson, Charles Ritchie) that it was quite the education to see events from her perspective.

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