Sunday, 7 February 2010

Nella Last

30. Nella Last's War

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.

26 comments:

  1. I am so looking forward to this one! I adore diaries and, from the excerpts posted here and reviews I've seen elsewhere, this looks like it's going to be a real treat.

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  2. This sounds like a great book that I feel I would enjoy. Great review.

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  3. Dear Simon, those quotes were so beautiful I had tears while reading them. You're not the 'last' to discover these diaries though...
    I will add this to my list of to be boughts.

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  4. I loved this book (as you know!) and am so glad you've discovered it. I'd love to read more Nella Last.

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  5. Simon - thanks so much for this. I've had these on the wishlist for ages but had no idea the writing was so beautiful.

    Carol N

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  6. Nella Last's War has been on my wishlist ever since I read Our Longest Days, also taken from the Mass Observations records. If you haven't read that one, do - it's astonishing how it shows you what life was like for "ordinary" people during WW2.

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  7. Lovely review Simon. It took me years to get around to NL's diary & I enjoyed it very much. Almost up there with Vere Hodgson. I have NL's peace on the tbr shelves, must read it soon.

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  8. I've got Housewife 49 on DVD; let me know if you'd like to borrow it. It's very different from the book but well worth a watch. I can't endorse the Peace volume enough either - so many war diaries, it's interesting to see what happened after it all

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  9. Sounds like another one to add to the "future reads" pile. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

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  10. I am addicted to books about WWII and I've read hundreds, but this is one of my all-time favorites. And if you're a middle-aged woman with children (like me!), the book is even more poignant, I think. I haven't read Peace, but I hope to one day.

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  11. Not keen of this genre normally but you've made me want to read this! I'll definitely be adding it to my list.

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  12. I didnt realise that the show with the marvellous Victoria Wood acting her socks off was a book!!! I am now most desperate to read this I have to say!

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  13. I feel like I've heard of this - I'm addicted to reading other people's diaries. It sounds really wonderful; thanks for the recommendation!

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  14. Great and thanks i ware searching like these books for long time

    cool

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  15. I saw Housewife, 49 recently and it was fantastic. Actually I've been really into diary writing since watching it. She was inspirational. I'll have to read the book now.

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  16. Hi - this diary looks interesting - I am especially interested as my sister and I discovered a diary my father had written from 1939(when he joined the RAF aged 20) to 1940 (when he was posted abroad - you weren't meant to keep diaries then). It was incredibly interesting to find out more about my father, and how he saw the momentous events of the war. And cinema - films meant a great deal to him then and probably to everyone else, as some light relief.

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  17. Richard Broad2 April 2010 11:38

    Thank you for lovely review of Nella Last's War. As one of her editors may like to know that is edited from about 2 million words - she could write as many as as 1000 words a day. So the book only contains about 5% of the original. Nella Last's Peace edited by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson goes up to 1948. A third book covering the 1950's will be published in the autumn.

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  18. Thank you for your comment, Richard, that's really interesting - I had no idea she wrote so much. I'm very impressed by the editing, in that case!

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  19. Nella was my great Grandmother, Arthur, her son, my Grandfather. These two books have been such a gift. I have learned so much about my family. So many stories get lost as relatives pass away and I am so fortunate to have these stories to discover. Really looking forward to reading the 3rd which has just been printed. My father passed away in July this year. He was so incredibly proud of this heirloom that has been created. On my bucket list is to sit for days at the university and read some of her original diaries.

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    1. What were your Grandparents doing living in Hampshire in 1918?

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  20. Fieryredhen - what happened to all the letters that Nella Last wrote to her sons every week for decades?

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  21. Just want to thank you for reviewing this book in 2010 - I've at last got it and am in the middle of it, and really enjoying it. As you say it's not introspective, like my diaries have been, and is so linked in with the events of the day as well as being perceptive about people that it is a classic. And as I've said it reminds me of my father's little diary - but he stopped his when he was posted abroad so this fills in the gaps.
    Thanks Simon!

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    1. Thanks for popping back and telling me, Janells! Isn't it wonderful? I still have Nella Last in the 1950s to read.

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  22. Just want to thank you for reviewing this book in 2010 - I've at last got it and am in the middle of it, and really enjoying it. As you say it's not introspective, like my diaries have been, and is so linked in with the events of the day as well as being perceptive about people that it is a classic. And as I've said it reminds me of my father's little diary - but he stopped his when he was posted abroad so this fills in the gaps.
    Thanks Simon!

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  23. Thanks very much for reviewing this book in 2010 Simon - I took note and am now in the middle of it. As you say, she's not introspective (or when she is she makes more sense than I do!), she's perceptive about people as well as commenting on events as they happen - a real classic. She doesn't realise what a good writer she is, and a philosopher of common sense. My father wrote a diary in the war, as I've mentioned, but it stops as soon as he was posted abroad in 1940, and this fills in the gaps and gives such a good idea of what it was like to live through that time - they had a lot more to cope with than we do, overall!

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