Friday, June 22, 2018

Carrying their gas masks

‘We saw a sign of the times tonight: I had some shopping to do and my husband ran me down in the car. We came back by a lane that has always been used by courting couples since I can remember. They were there in plenty - all carrying their gas masks!’ This is Nella Last, famously, an ordinary housewife who, thanks to a call by Mass Observation at the start of the Second World War, became a diarist. She died 50 years ago today, and it was not until a dozen years later that her diaries were published for the first time. They were much praised, and they were recognised as an important social record. More recently, volumes of her post-war diaries have been published, partly thanks to publicity provided by a popular film adaptation of the war diaries.

Nellie (Nella) Lord was born in 1889, daughter of a railway audit clerk. She suffered a serious injury when young which left her unable to walk properly for half her childhood. Her education, she described later as ‘patchy’. She married William Last, a shopfitter and joiner, in 1911. They lived in Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire, and had two sons. In the early 1930s, she was active in local party politics, helping to canvas for the Conservative Party during the 1931 general election. During WW2, she worked for the Women’s Voluntary Service and the Red Cross. Her eldest son, Arthur, was a tax inspector and therefore exempted from conscription, but her youngest son, Cliff, joined the army. Later Cliff emigrated to Australia where he became a noted sculptor. Nella died on 22 June 1968. A little further information is available from Wikipedia, the BBC, and the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

In 1939, after suffering from depression, Nella Last joined Mass Observation, an organisation set up two years earlier to document attitudes and practices in every day life. In particular, she responded to a call by the organisation, in August that year, for members of the public to record and send in a day-to-day account of their lives in the form of a diary. This, and then with the war too, she had a new lease of life, and began writing up to 1,500 words a day for Mass Observation. Indeed, she eventually submitted over two million words during the war, and went on submitting diary material for 20 more years after. Her Mass Observation diary is considered to be one of the fullest and frankest of such diaries, exceptional not only for the length and regularity with which she wrote but also for the interest and quality of the writing.

The diary was first edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming, and published in 1981 by Falling Wall Press as Nella Last’s War: A Mother’s Diary 1939-1943. It was republished in 2006 as Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife 49 by Profile Books. The publisher says of the work: ‘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, unglamorised, female perspective on the war years.’

Also in 2006, the British television company ITV broadcast a film based on the diaries - Housewife, 49 - starring Victoria Wood. This brought the war diaries to a much wider audience, and, subsequently, Profile books published further volumes of Last’s post-war diaries: Nella Last’s Peace: The Post-War Diaries of Housewife 49 (2008 - see also Googlebooks); Nella Last in the 1950s (2010 - see also Googlebooks), and the The Diaries of Nella Last: Writing in War & Peace (2012 - see also Googlebooks), all edited by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson.

The following extracts are taken from the 2006 Profile edition of Nella Last’s War.

4 September 1939
‘Today has been an effort to get round, for my head is so bad. A cap of pain has settled down firmly and defies aspirin. I managed to tidy up and wash some oddments and then, as the neatness did not matter, made two cot blankets out of tailor’s pieces. I’ve nearly finished a knitted one. I have a plan to make good, warm cot blankets out of old socks cut open and trimmed. It breaks my heart to think about the little babies and the tiny children being evacuated - and the feelings of their poor mothers. I’ve got lots of plans made to spare time so as to work with the W.V.S. - including having my hair cut short at the back. I cannot bear the pins in now, and unless curls are curls they are just horrid. My husband laughs at me for what he terms ‘raving’, but he was glad to hear of a plan I made last crisis and have since polished up. It’s to keep hens on half the lawn. The other half of the lawn will grow potatoes, and cabbage will grow under the apple trees and among the currant bushes. I’ll try and buy this year’s pullets and only get six, but when spring comes I’ll get two sittings and have about twenty extra hens in the summer to kill. I know a little about keeping hens and I’ll read up. My husband just said, ‘Go ahead.’ ’

5 September 1939
‘I went to the W.V.S. Centre today and was amazed at the huge crowd. We have moved into a big room in the middle of town now, but big as it is, every table was crowded uncomfortably with eager workers. Afterwards, huge stacks of wool to be knitted into bedcovers, and dozens of books of tailor’s patterns to be machined together, were taken. They average about seventy-seven yards of machining to join each piece with a double row of stitching and a double-stitched hem. I’m on my third big one and have made about a dozen cot quilts. As my husband says, it would have been quicker to walk the distance than machine it. I’m lucky, for my machine is electric and so does not tire me. Everyone seemed to be so kind - no clever remarks made aside.

Tonight I had my first glimpse of a blackout, and the strangeness appalled me. A tag I’ve heard somewhere, ‘The City of Dreadful Night’, came into my mind and I wondered however the bus and lorry drivers would manage. I don’t think there is much need for the wireless to advise people to stay indoors - I’d need a dog to lead me.’

11 September 1939
‘The announcement in the paper, following one on the wireless, that the Government were preparing for a three-year war seems to have been a shock to a lot of people. One woman I know - a big-made woman of about fifty-six who took on an air-raid warden job - has had a nervous breakdown. Her niece said she had always had a fear of the dark and, now she knew she would have to take her turn in the dark all winter, she has cracked up. Other friends look aged, and I have a cold feeling down inside when I think of my Cliff off on Friday. I will dedicate every part of my time when I’m not looking after my husband to the W.V.S. I’ll work and beg things and keep cheerful - outwardly at least. Now when I plan and work harder, I find my brain sharper and I don’t forget things. I’m following my doctor’s advice and have not lost any more weight. I can sleep at least four hours a night and, although always tired, have not been so exhausted.

We saw a sign of the times tonight: I had some shopping to do and my husband ran me down in the car. We came back by a lane that has always been used by courting couples since I can remember. They were there in plenty - all carrying their gas masks!’

23 September 1939
‘Such a lovely day, and when we went to Spark Bridge I could hardly realise the year was so far advanced, for all is so lovely and green. We called at Greenodd to see Cousin Mary and her two evacuees - they have settled down wonderfully. A chance remark of one of them made me think. Their mother, who with the baby is living a little distance away, called to take them nutting, and as Mary was getting them ready she made some remarks about ‘when we get home again’. A startled look came over the younger boy (about seven) and his eyes filled as he said rather pitifully, ‘Aren’t we going to stay here always?’ I saw the look on the mother’s face, and my heart ached as I thought how I would have felt if my family had been scattered.’

1 October 1939
‘Feel better for my lazy restful day and must take more rest. Now that I’m going down to the W.V.S. Centre on Mondays as well as Thursdays and Tuesday afternoons. I’ll plan my days out carefully. Easily prepared lunches, cooked the night before - so that I can make a nice lunch and lay the table for tea and be away in one and a half hours.’

5 February 1940
‘I don’t get much done these days, for I am beginning to feel I want to go to sleep if I sit down to sew; and then again, when the alarm-clock goes off at five minutes before every hour, and I’ve to make baby’s wee eggcup of NestlĂ©’s and give it to her, a quarter of an hour at the very least goes out of every hour - day and night. She made a mewing sound today. It was hardly a cry and her tiny fingers curled round my finger with surprising strength when I put my finger in her doll-like palm. Sol is in deepest disgrace - very deep. I put cod-liver oil swabs I’d used in a paper bag in the garage, and meant to put the bag in a sack with all the oiled wool together. It was on the potatoes barrel and must have got knocked off, and my silly little old dog has eaten them! I’ve given him castor oil and am hoping he is all right tomorrow.’

10 March 1940
‘We took Cliff to the station at 7.45 and found a huge crowd waiting. There must have been at least 200 soldiers, airmen and sailors going off leave, and a lot had come to see them off. We heard by conversation that one group were on draft leave, and there was one young fellow, who looked about twenty-four, parting from his wife of twenty-two to twenty-four. She was such a pretty, frail-looking girl, who would be having her baby soon, and my heart ached as I saw her poor little brave face with its fixed grin as she waved goodbye. Stations to me are always rather sad-making, but tonight, with the mist wreathing and steaming under the roof and the blue lights half-obscured by smoke and mist, I thought it was the most hopeless, deadening place on earth. To see the people in the carriage with the blue light robbing them of colour was an added horror. I felt so tired and cold - a queer inner coldness - that I came to bed to write my letters.’

The Diary Junction

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