In September 1939, housewife and mother Nella Last began a diary whose entries, in their regularity, length and quality, have created a record of the Second World War which is powerful, fascinating and unique. When war broke out, Nella’s younger son joined the army while the rest of the family tried to adapt to civilian life. Writing each day for the “Mass Observation” project, Nella, a middle-aged housewife from the bombed town of Barrow, shows what people really felt during this time. This was the period in which she turned 50, saw her children leave home, and reviewed her life and her marriage – which she eventually compares to slavery. Her growing confidence as a result of her war work makes this a moving (though often comic) testimony, which, covering sex, death and fear of invasion, provides a new, unglamourised, female perspective on the war years. ‘Next to being a mother, I’d have loved to write books.’ Oct 8, 1939.
There are many books out there that give us a perspective of World War II from the point of view of those fighting on the front lines, in the resistance and from Whitehall, but there are very few that show us what living through this war was like from the viewpoint of the civilian at home. In 1937, the Mass Observation Project in England was founded by Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson. They wanted to record the views of ordinary British people, and recruited volunteers to observe British life, and diarists to record a day-to-day account of their lives. These archives now give a unique insight into the lives of British civilians who found themselves going through a period when their country was at war. Nella Last is one of these diarists and, far from giving the reader an uncomfortable feeling of reading something private, it opens up a world that few could have imagined existed during these austere times. The writer is an ordinary small town English housewife, and her diary covers the period of time from the outbreak of war in September 1939 through to August 1945, although she did keep contributing to the project until 1965. Housewife 49, refers to how she headed her first entry; her occupation – Housewife, her age – 49.
Nella and her Family lived in Barrow-in-Furness in the North of England, which at the time was a shipbuilding town. This meant that during the Barrow Blitz in April and May of 1941, it became a heavy target for German bombing. This was a period when families were separated, and sometimes coping with the loss of a family member. Cities were being bombed, and housewives such as Nella had to find new ingenious ways to keep their homes together. This remarkable account depicts clearly what it was like for ordinary families living through World War Two.
The diary itself plays two different roles in our understanding of what it was like to live in these times, as it clearly seen that she writes about two distinct areas of her life; Family, friends and the role of women which are the more personal side of the diaries and the other area which reveals Nella’s opinions of public events such as the early war years, and the Barrow Blitz I mentioned above.
Nella’s diary is full of stories about her family, her marriage, her volunteer work and the difficulties of day-to-day life with blackout curtains, rationing and enemy bombers flying overhead. Gas for recreational use was cut off and they couldn’t go anywhere except by bus, a task many of us would balk at today. Rationing became severe in the last years of the war, so they tried to grow things like onions and tomatoes that were not available at the grocery store they were registered with, and Nella actually tore up their lawn to keep hens so they would have more than the 1 egg per week that rationing would allow.
Air raids sirens were a nightly occurrence meaning the Family, at times, slept in their clothes so they could get to their shelter quickly if need be and sometimes they even went to bed in the shelter. Reading this diary brought back to mind when my Grandma would tell me about living in Leeds, Yorkshire during the war; the air raids, trying to raise three young children while her Husband was away and, when I asked her how she managed, she would tell me it was their way of making sure the Germans didn’t win on the home front, they picked themselves up and kept on going.
The diary isn’t all just hardship and grief, however, there are funny things such as happen in normal day-to-day life and Nella is very adept in conveying how much the value of laughter was cherished during these times. Something that will strike most readers of the diary is how the war and everyday life bled into each other as Nella writes about an air raid and marmalade in the same entry without a change in direction. The reader also sees how Nella grows from being the stereotypical Housewife of the day to being her own woman, something neither her Husband or sons were very keen on.
Apart from being an excellent historical record of the time, this diary serves to show us just how reliant on technology we have become as a society. We have moved away from the self-reliance needed to get us through hard times, and lost our compassion for others in need. It made me wonder how many people who read the diary would be able to successfully grow their own food and cope with the constant stress and tension the nightly bombings brought with them.
I highly recommend not only Nella Last’s War to everyone, but also the remaining two books of her diaries. Alone this is a learning experience, and a possible eye-opener for the more isolated of us out there but when combined with the other two books it becomes something everyone should read, and hopefully learn from.