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March 2019



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Nella Last's Peace

A couple of years ago I posted here about Nella Last’s War, which was made into a TV drama, Housewife, 49 starring Victoria Wood. Now the book has been followed up by Nella Last’s Peace, a selection from the millions of words she continued to write for Mass Observation when the war was over. I think it’s inevitable that the follow-up is less interesting; more of the same without the bombs and the fear for local boys in the forces.

I was writing just recently about how J G Ballard, returning to England as a teenager after the war, thought the country seemed defeated and tired. This is just the feeling one gets reading Nella’s diary. She comments frequently on her own tiredness and of feeling comfortable only when she gets to bed with a book. (Her comfort reading was the Herries chronicles by Hugh Walpole.) Demobilisation is slow, people worry about jobs, there are still shortages of essentials. Nella herself disapproves of the Labour government and wishes Churchill were still in charge; she is anti-American but is shocked by the way others hate not just the Germans but the French. There was of course a lot of resentment that goods had to be exported to make money or donated to help shattered Europe when the ‘victors’ were so short. (See also post-war fiction here.)

On the whole I find Nella’s views on the world situation and her philosophical ramblings much less fascinating than the minutiae of her housekeeping. She never tires of listing what she has bought in the shops, the meals she contrives at home so that her husband says he has ‘never noticed any shortages’, her mending and sewing. It can’t have been just the war which tired her out but the housewifely pressure she put on herself; I certainly wouldn’t feel the need to ‘vacc and dust’ as she puts it, after a day out.

I find it irritating that the publishers have chosen a typical misery memoir cover for the book. Nella and her husband lived in a modern, semi-detached house with a garage and a large garden. They had a telephone, a car and in 1946 Nella admits, strictly to her diary, that she has spent eight guineas on a dress (over £200 today). She may complain about the years of scrimping, saving and making do, but she was not poor. Anyone who likes reading diaries will enjoy this one, especially as it was never written for publication.


I enjoyed Nella Last's Peace. It was one of my Christmas presents. I felt reading it she must have some sort of chronic illness because she was so often ill. I also thought she found doing without very ahrd because until the war she'd not really had to. Therefore it was a huge shock to her not to be able to buy what she wnated when she wanted although I suppose had she been less pricipled she could have bought it on the black market.
She may have been ill through being worn out by the war? She was quite strict about the black market yet happy to swap goods for coupons; everyone must have done it.
Of course Britain was tired. All those years of bombing and fear and death and loss, and rationing (still to go on, of course). We had just four weeks of persistent bushfire threat and death and loss related to that, and I can tell you that we were exhausted, mentally and physically. People would have been completely worn out after that war. And not just in Britain, obviously.

I'll have to read the war one, but I'm not sure the peace will interest me all that much.
I prefer the war one but the peace is interesting. As you say. the country was tired but there was also a let-down feeling after looking forward so much to the peace. Now there were a whole lot of new worries; Nella is frightened by nuclear weapons and seems to assume that there will be another war. At one point she says that 'peace' only means a cessation of hostilities; she feels for all the displaced people in Europe.


Nella Last's Peace

I love reading diaries and letters because I'm a nosy person! 84 Charing Cross Road, whilst short, is a favourite, but for a longer indulgence, the 6 volumes of the Lyttelton Hart- Davis letters take (for me) some beating. Two erudite elderly men who chatter on rather about such things as cricket and publishing, but I find the letters fascinating. And yes, 8 gns for a dress was a lot of money immediately post-war (when a good weekly wage was less than this.) I recall paying 16 gns for a Frank Usher cocktail dress in 1963 and that was more than twice my weekly wage and I thought I'd gone mad, but I really was the belle of the ball that year and I only wish I'd kept the dress (black, Grecian style) as by now it would be truly vintage (a bit like its owner!)
Margaret Powling
I did enjoy her wartime diary... I didn't realise there was a follow up! I'd like to read that too. It's quite a favourite on the library van, along with Keeping Mum by Brian Thompson. Have you read that? It's a memoir of his wartime childhood growing up in a very strange family (his dad disappears to South Africa without telling them, his mum spends her days smoking and avoiding the neighbours).

He could have made quite a misery memoir from it - his mum was depressed and negligent, his dad an abusive bully - but instead he manages a to write a funny, unsentimental but touching tale.
Oh, I like the sound of Keeping Mum; I'll look out for it.

Not only do you drive around beautiful countryside and meet some interesting people, you have the fun of seeing what they read!

I loved the war journal

I'll have to seek this one out. I always thought that Nella suffered with her 'nerves' which is why she was ill so often.

Re: I loved the war journal

Nella's nerves: yes, I agree. At lot of the illness mentioned in the book is gastric trouble (she's sick quite a lot), dizzy spells and so on. I really got into the book and didn't want it to finish.


Thanks for linking to your reviews - it makes me even keener to read this, though I'll leave a gap between them. I agree with you about the way they were packaged - it made me think Nella was working-class, whereas in fact (though not rich) she was certainly and sefl-confessedly middle-class.

I liked both books. I did eventually see the TV programme and didn't like it at all. I love Victoria Wood but I don't think she's a good straight actress. The story was adapted to make Nella's life appear more miserable than in the book (snobbery at the WVS, none of those little outings in the car) and made it clear that Cliff was gay (he was, but you wouldn't necessarily assume so from the diary). I think it's clear she had what was then called 'nervous trouble', which makes me sympathise with her a lot.