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:I said once at the WVS [Women's Voluntary Services] Centre, "I feel like a piece of elastic that has been stretched and stretched and now has no more stretch - and cannot spring back." They laughed, but several said it was a pretty good description of their own post-war feelings and I can tell Arthur has somewhat the same reaction. More and more do I feel I must take each day as it comes, do the best I can and lay my day aside, taking up the next. Sometimes I feel so dead tired, like a burnt-out shell, craving only to relax and rest. Then my mind rises and rebukes my tired body - says, "So much to be done, so little time." The stars shine brightly tonight. I love stars. They make me feel trivial and unimportant - and are so stable. I don't wonder the old ones thought Heaven was above the bright blue sky.
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!
Such a nice letter from MO [Mass Observation]. Arthur can see a value in my endless scribbles. He told me long ago they were of more use than 'clever' writings, as they wanted an ordinary woman's viewpoint and routine. There's so little help I can give now. It gave me a grand feeling I could help someone. An idle thought struck me - the weight and volume of over eight years' scribbling must be surprising. Supposing I'd been clever, there could have been a few books! Always I longed to write, but there was something missing. Only in my letter writing and MO have I found fulfilment of my girlhood yearning to write. Anyway, they might have been good books. At least my letters have cheered and comforted - the boys always like them.
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.