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Monday, 17 March 2008
Nella Last's War
edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming
I want to review this because it was such an unusual and compelling reading experience, and has stayed with me since. Nella Last was a volunteer for the Mass Observation Diaries, a project which started just before the war and continued for nearly 30 years. Many such diaries were collected in order to build up a wide-ranging document of social history.
This book is compiled from the diaries kept during World War 2 by Nella, a housewife who lived in Barrow in Furness. It was recently dramatised on TV as Housewife, 49 by Victoria Wood, who took the part of Nella. Although this was very watchable, it couldn’t come near the experience of reading the diaries. It becomes clear that Nella, who had previously suffered with “her nerves,” as they used to refer to depression, found the writing a great emotional support, and the reader becomes her confidant. At the same time, she has a writers gift for picking out details that bring a scene or a character alive. You constantly feel yourself to be looking over her shoulder as she describes her struggle to maintain a household through the privations of the war, the worries and tragedies as deaths occur around her, or the politics of the local WI. She has a slightly edgy relationship with her husband, whom she distances from the reader by referring to him throughout simply as “my husband” - unlike her sons, Arthur and Cliff, one in a reserved occupation, one away at the war. Her feelings and reactions to events are human, unselfconscious and genuine, and it’s impossible to reach the end without developing a great affection for her.
It’s a great irony of the book that she sometimes mentions that she would like to be a writer. As someone said, the poignancy is that she will never have known that she really was one.
reviewed by Christopher Bazalgette