Monday 19 December 2011

Nella Last's Peace

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.

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.
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!
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.


  1. I'd seen the TV adaptation but lost track of whose diaries it was based on - thanks for the reminder, and now I have two books to look for.

  2. Lovely review! I have now read 'War' (thanks to your recommendation - it was one of my absolute favourite reads this year) and 'Peace' and have the '1950s' lined up. I found 'Peace' very melancholy in tone. She is so thwarted at every turn by hearth, health and husband - it was very sad. Yet she doesn't sink - I expect the diary plays a big role in her survival - and I found her ability to grasp the big picture and sum it up so simply continued to shine through as in 'War' (for instance, her remarks on the decline of personal responsibility as the villages become modern suburbs [p187]). Such a pity she didn't have the opportunities to shine until now.

  3. Enjoyed your review, and I'm so glad you liked Nella Last's diaries - they are favourites of mine. She has such an individual voice, commenting on local and national issues, as well as revealing her own thoughts and describing the Barrow area and the people who lived there. Every time I read her I think how much she would have loved blogging and the opportunity to communicate with others.

  4. Wow. What a wonderful writer and how tragic that all she could do was communicate with her diaries. And why oh why have I not read these books which are clearly exactly right for me, given my seemingly unquenchable appetite for everything written at this period. Must rectify this soon.

  5. I adore Nella Last, have read 'War' and 'Peace' and am currently reading '1950s'. My late mother was a bit younger than Nella and we're Americans, but there are so many similarities between them. They both sucked it up and plowed on even when things were grim and they were unhappy. They sewed and cooked and made use of every scrap to better their families. My mother was never as outspoken as Nella, except when someone else's well-being or happiness was at stake. I have almost thirty years of my mother's letters to me after I left home, like Nella's, well written, chatty, and with wonderful descriptions. They both were writers in the broad and true sense. Often, Nella sounds like my mother and reminds me of her. I miss them both.

  6. I adored this too. I spun it out over several weeks. I think the first one of the three is the best but they are all definitely worth reading.

    Have you managed to watch the tv adaption yet?

  7. I haven't heard of these books --or the show-- but that's probably due to being on the wrong side of the pond. I hope I can find a copy here.

  8. I had not heard of these books or the TV adaptation, but will look out for them now.
    Have a good Christmas and I look forward to following you in 2012.

  9. Thanks for this, Simon. I'll check on Peace, when I've finished War, which is still on my TBR pile.

  10. I really enjoyed this review especially the extracts you quoted. Thank you

  11. I really need to track down these two! :)

  12. Lisa May - you're welcome! I keep meaning to watch the TV drama - borrowed it from Verity.

    bibliolathas - so glad you read War, isn't it wonderful? I have 1950s lined up myself; I'll leave a bit of a gap. I think you're right, the diary must have helped - even if she sent it away and could't read back through old entries.

    ChrisCross - thank you :) She would definitely have been a blogger, wouldn't she? Hers is such a perceptive voice.

  13. Harriet - you must, you must! She turns up quite often in charity shops, so keep an eye out. A really wonderful talent - I'm so glad she wasn't left to moulder in the MO archives - and that they weren't satisfied with the 1980s edition which didn't really set the world alight, for whatever reason.

    Joan - thank you so much for your comment. What a really wonderful legacy your mother has left you, all those letters to re-read. That's the kind of thing we don't get very much now, with emails etc.

    Verity - I can't wait to see what she makes of the 1950s! I still haven't watched your DVD, sorry, it'll be one of my projects early in 2012.

  14. Kelly - happy hunting!

    LindyLou - a very happy Christmas yourself! Thanks for reading in 2011 :)

    Susan - I'm spacing them out at about 18 month intervals, I think they might all be a bit much, read one after the other. But I'll certainly return to her war diaries in the future.

    Sue - you're welcome :)

    Eva - you do! I think you'd find them fascinating.


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