Nella Last’s War, The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49, edited by Richard Broad & Suzie Fleming. I keep wanting to type this ‘Nella’s Last War’, which makes no sense at all. This book is based on the diaries which Nella Last made for Mass Observation. She lived in Barrow-in-Furness with her husband, dog, cat and the hens she started keeping on the lawn when war broke out. Her elder son was in a reserved occupation as a tax inspector; her younger son was sent overseas. Living so near the shipyard and with fishing important locally, she was particularly concerned with the welfare of sailors.
She wrote about her war worries, her fears for all the young servicemen and for the civilians suffering everywhere but also about the minutiae of daily life and how to make the rations stretch. Much of the time she felt pretty terrible and it's touching that she would put a pretty embroidered cloth on the table, with a bowl of flowers, to cheer things up. She got through an astonishing amount of needlework and knitting for the WVS. Imagine making a quilt out of cut-up socks!
When bombs started falling on Barrow they bought a Morrison shelter and installed it in the dining room. When thinking of the Blitz one usually remembers London, Bristol, Southampton, Coventry and so on, but Barrow? Proportionally, the damage was terrible. The Lasts’ house was damaged but not destroyed and they were glad of the shelter. People streamed out of town every night, even sleeping in fields. I remember my mother telling me about going down to the shelter when the sirens went off and how, one night, a neighbour rushed out with her baby wrapped up in a towel, straight out of its bath. What a nightmare. When I was a young child there was still an Anderson shelter in the garden next door. Flowers grew all over it, which I think Nella would have liked.
I didn’t watch Victoria Wood’s TV adaptation of the diaries as Housewife, 49, but she seems to have taken quite a lot of liberties with her subject. I found this book utterly riveting and got fond of Nella. Highly recommended.
A few years ago I read another war diary, Mrs Milburn's Diaries. An Englishwoman's Day to Day Reflections 1939 – 45. These were private diaries and perhaps for that reason say less about world events and more about daily life. It is interesting but not as good as Nella’s diary and one can’t like Mrs Milburn as much. Far better is To War with Whitaker by The Countess of Ranfurly (1995). This is also based on diaries but from the upper class point of view. It's a fascinating book in that one sees the change from 1939 when it’s ‘our’ war, that is, one led by upper class people ‘one knew’, to the People’s War of 1945. When war broke out, the author’s husband was in the yeomanry and her mother-in-law kindly offered him a horse as ‘a second mount’. He went off to the Middle East to fight a cavalry war, poor chap. Poor horses, too; they were all slaughtered in the end.
The Countess, indomitable, was determined to be with her husband and got herself to the war zone, where she blagged her way into a series of jobs which she seems to have been very good at. As the war went on, she lost several friends in brave but futile missions. She disliked Montgomery as she thought he was too cautious. (Almost nobody liked Monty, Madam, but he won battles!) There’s not enough Whitaker in this book for me but it is good to report that the author, husband and faithful Whitaker all made it safely through the war. The Countess was a remarkable woman, who founded Book Aid International.
Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther, although written in diary form, was first published as articles as were Joyce Dennys’ wonderful books Henrietta’s War and Henrietta Sees It Through. These are usually read as fiction and Henrietta is a great comfort read.