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Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of 'Housewife, 49'

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Genre: Biography / Author: Trustees of the Mass Observation Archives / Paperback / 320 Pages / Book is published 2006-11-16 by Profile Books

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      18.09.2009 22:48
      Very helpful




      Next to being a mother, I'd have loved to write books - that is if I had the brains and the time. ~ Nella Last

      When you think of diaries from the WW2, you probably think of the Diary of Anne Frank, or perhaps one of the numerous volumes written by various soldiers, or the books of soldiers letters .

      Most stories of the war are told either from the point of view of someone persecuted for their race or religion, or from someone living in daily fear for their lives on the front lines .

      But how much do you know about the day to day lives of ordinary housewives during the war . You probably know a little about rationing, the blitz, and blackouts- but how much do you know of how this would affect someone on a day to day basis ?

      I picked up two books from a charity shop recently, Nella Lasts War , and Nella Lasts Peace. I was delighted to get both the war diary and its sequal together for the bargain price of £1.50.

      Nella Last, an ordinary housewife 49 years of age, began writing her diaries for the Mass Observation Project . The project was set up in 1937, by Charles Madge, a poet and journalist, and Tom Harrison, and anthropologist, to record the lives and thoughts of ordinary peopler from all over the country and volunteers would write daily acocunts of their lives that they would send in to the project weekly. Nella kepy up her diary for over 30 years, although this particular volume covers only the years from 1939-1945.

      As the diary begins, Britain has just joined the war, and Nella, like many housewives with no young children at home, is expected to do her bit for the war effort - which she does, as a volunteer for the WVS in her town of Barrow in Furness, a ship-building town . She spends her days begging and borrowing bits of cloth to make blankets for babies in the hospital, and raffling off items to raise funds to send out in support of soldiers. Nella's two sons , Cliff and Arthur are still living at home, and her husband William works as a shop fitter and joiner.

      Her son Arthur works for the tax office, and is therefore exempt from conscription - however, her sun Cliff must join the Army and fight for his country .

      As the war progresses, limitations come in - such as rations and coupons, black outs, lack of petrol for travel and other things . Nellas diary tells us how all these things, as well as the larger issues of death and fighting, affected her lives and the lives of people around her . The diary is a mix of the personal, trivial little details of everyday life and reactions to huge events of the war .

      She writes about everything in a very honest way - her frustrations that she does so much and yet so little, her annoyance with her husbands old fashioned opinions, her fears for her son as he joins the army and her pride at the same thing . She comes across as resourceful, selfless, and incredly helpful, and at the same time displays very human emotions - frustration, anger, and even the odd moment of catty spite.

      I really enjoyed reading this - I laughed at times, cried at others, and could have cheerfully slapped people in the book on several occasions . Nella tales of how she cobbles together meals from only a handful of ingredients - not only for herself and her family, but also for the volunteers at the wvs and later for soldiers at the canteen, are lightly humourous, and her resourcefulness with everything at a time of great shortage is sometimes nothing short of miraculous . She has a use for everything - and certainly puts todays wasteful materialistic attitudes to shame .

      Her writing style is light and chatty, although you can see at times where she is overtaken with emotion - the writing becomes tense and 'fast' sounding. She also has a wonderful amount of intuition, especially when she anticipates the aftermath of the war - the continued shortage, the problems with evacuees returning home-very accurately.

      Of course, before reading this book I knew about rations, blackouts, and so on . But I didn't know what it was like to experience these things - to panic when a doodlebug suddenly went silent , to sleep on a bed wedged into an under stair cupboard, and to cheerfully wave your son off to war with a smile on your face and a fast-beating heart . She really brings you into her life - you feel as though you're sitting in the back of her mind observing her life, and feeling the same frustrations and emotions that she does .

      I heartily endorse this book (and its sequal). I think these are valuable observations that are very important - and it's reassuring to know that the original diaries are preserved as part of the Mass Observation archives housed at the University of Sussex in Brighton . As a result of reading this book, I actually intend to visit these archives on my next visit to Sussex to see the diaries for myself .

      The Mass Observation project, for which Nella wrote her diaries, is still ongoing, and the website is at www.massobs.org.uk , and if you are a regular diary keeper it may be something you'd be interested in participating in .

      I'll leave you with a couple of short passages from the book .

      Wednesday 15 January 1941: I gave Cliff a very big helping as he had to catch the train back [to his base] after lunch. He said 'If you ever have to work for a living, Mom, come and cook for the Army'. I said 'What do you mean - work for my living. I guess a married woman who brings up a family and makes a home, is working jolly hard for her living. And don't you ever forget it. And don't get the lordly male attitude that thinking wives are pets - and kept pets at that.'

      Sunday 12 April 1942: When I was a girl, it was considered very odd not to be married at 21 or 22, and my mother said 17 or 18 was the age most girls thought of marriage when she was young. Looking round friends and acquaintance's boys and girls, sons of 25 to 30 with no thought of marriage and girls who are going off to the Services and saying 'Oh we will wait till after the War to get married'.

      5 stars - an excellent look at one womans war .


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