October 25th, 2010

garden journal

Nella Last in the 1950s

I dearly love a diary, whether it’s genuine, like Pepys’ Diary or the fictional The Diary of a Nobody. More than any other medium it seems to take you right into the writer’s life, so that you feel you are living with them. Nella Last, who wrote such long reports for Mass Observation, had a great gift for describing her home, her neighbourhood and her friends and relatives; no detail was too trivial for her to record. This must account for the great publishing success of Nella Last’s War & Nella Last’s Peace. Now Robert and Patricia Malcolmson have put together Nella Last in the 1950s, a slightly misleading title as it only covers 1950 -52.

Nella and her husband Will are still living in the same house in Barrow, with one son in Belfast and the other in Australia. Their circumstances have changed, as Will has been forced to retire early due to ill health, money is tight and prices are rising. Due to post-war shortages there are regular power cuts; there’s so little fuel that even respectable people like the Lasts turn beachcomber and bring home driftwood for the fire. Nella is of course the queen of ‘making-do’ when it comes to sewing and cooking and her industry is quite tiring to read about. These are not happy diaries. At times Nella feels nostalgic for the wartime community spirit and the feeling of belonging and helping that she had in the WVS. Her chief problem though is her husband and much of the book is about her attempts to cope with and help him. He was obviously suffering from severe depression: having ‘attacks of nerves’, not wanting to socialise, ratting at Nella and offending the neighbours. He saw a psychiatrist, who could offer no help. As we know from the previous books, Nella herself suffered from ‘nerves’, to the extent of being physically sick when she was upset, so the effort to keep ‘bright’ for her husband’s sake was tiring.

Luckily, Nella still finds pleasure in writing, reading and sewing, and in the beauties of nature. One of her husband’s few pleasures was driving, so in spite of the expense they are still able to have little jaunts ‘over Walney’ or up to Coniston. When she’s in reminiscent mood, Nella reminds us that although she’s lived so long in Barrow, she had a country childhood. She remembers the charcoal burners of Lakeland, her granny’s recipes and medicines, the fun of harvest home, the enthusiasm during elections, when all the children would sport rosettes. She is suspicious of the welfare state, fears an atomic war, misses Churchill, is surprised to see people buying televisions and to her mind wasting money in other ways. In spite of all this and her own problems, she doesn’t live in the past but looks forward, maintaining her zest for life.

I really enjoyed sharing Nella’s life again for a while and wished there were more of the same.