Nella Last's Peace: The Post-war Diaries of Housewife 49 by Patricia Malcolmson (Editor), Robert Malcolmson (Editor)

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Nella Last's Peace: The Post-war Diaries of Housewife 49 by Patricia Malcolmson (Editor), Robert Malcolmson (Editor)

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Category: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Everyday life in post-Second World War austerity Britain, acutely observed by a Barrow-in-Furness housewife. For those interested in social history, this provides a wealth of authentic detail; others may find it over-long.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: October 2008
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846680748

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During the period 1945-1948, Second World War hostilities were over, but life in Barrow-in-Furness was far from back-to-normal. Food, clothes and petrol were still on ration; passing servicemen and prisoners of war demanded aid from civilians; demobbed men returned to find that their pre-war jobs had vanished in economic recession.

This is not a book to be judged by its cover. It isn't a tale of poverty in the back-to-back terraces of the shipbuilding town. Nella Last, the diarist, was a housewife in her fifties at the end of the War. She lived in a modern, semi-detached house, the wife of a skilled tradesman who ran the small family joinery business and made enough to 'get by'. Nella didn't scrub her own doorstep; she employed a cleaner and sent her washing to the local laundry. Her husband owned a car, from which they frequently enjoyed the beautiful, nearby Lake District. By dint of Nella's scrimping, saving and strong personality, the family survived the hardships of war in good shape.

For housewives, 'make do and mend' was a prime virtue and Nella Last describes large portions of her day spent queuing, cooking and sewing. She often ruminates on the dreariness of her current circumstances, by comparison with her valued role in the Women's Voluntary Service during the war years. Then, she was buoyed by being part of a national determination to defeat the enemy. Her adult two sons both needed practical assistance, but by now have left for Belfast and Australia. An underlying pessimism pervades her writing as she struggles to find a worthwhile role within her reduced, pre-feminist, domestic world. However, Nella prides herself on her outward liveliness and optimism and will not succumb to depression. Eventually she recognizes this strength, which endeared her to extended family, neighbours and fellow women volunteers.

The book interested me in two ways. First, an older person is trying to make sense and meaning of life in a world dominated by younger people, a universal theme that transcends Nella's society. At the same time, the hardship and gloom of domestic life for a housewife in post-war Britain makes for a salutary read in today's economic climate. There are details of rudimentary and ineffectual medical care for the old and depressed at the start of the National Health Service. Nella describes chronic health problems that limit her everyday living in a way few women of fifty expect today. Making these historical comparisons gives perspective: there is so much further we could fall.

Nella wrote more than a million words in this four year period alone, eventually completing a diary for Mass Observation spanning twenty-seven years. By selecting discrete passages to represent her story, the editors faced a difficult task. In retaining the integrity of the original text, repeated detail occasionally becomes tedious. Similarly, fragments of different life stories embedded in the minutiae of her diary sometimes draw continuity from Nella's own narrative. I wish I'd started the book with more autobiographical details than were provided. I was left wondering about Nella's past (recounted in Nella Last's War) and future life, and hope there will be a third volume to complete her autobiography.

Her picture of austerity resonated with my own childhood in South London, where my parents had survived the Blitz with a similar philosophy of thrift, so it was a nostalgic read. For anyone interested in gaining an authentic snapshot of British society in the immediate post-war period, the book will repay the time the reader invests in it.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr is highly recommended for an overview of the period; Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing, provides earlier selections from the Mass Observation Archive; also recommended by Bookbag are Christopher Rush's Hellfire and Herring and Shadows Of The Workhouse: The Drama Of Life In Postwar London by Jennifer Worth.

Buy Nella Last's Peace: The Post-war Diaries of Housewife 49 by Patricia Malcolmson (Editor), Robert Malcolmson (Editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Nella Last's Peace: The Post-war Diaries of Housewife 49 by Patricia Malcolmson (Editor), Robert Malcolmson (Editor) at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Nella Last's Peace: The Post-war Diaries of Housewife 49 by Patricia Malcolmson (Editor), Robert Malcolmson (Editor) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Nella Last's Peace: The Post-war Diaries of Housewife 49 by Patricia Malcolmson (Editor), Robert Malcolmson (Editor) at Amazon.com.

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Stella Lanham said:

Dear Bookbag

I completely agree with Trish Simpson-Davis's review. The book's cover showing a street of terraced houses is quite inappropriate: I suppose it might be a street in Barrow, but it's certainly nothing like the road Nella lived in.

I was rather disappointed that no mention was included of the then Princess Elizabeth's wedding, because I remember what excitement it caused at the time, as the first touch of glamour in that period of austerity and shortages. I can't believe that Nella didn't comment on it, as a year later she was obviously interested in the news of Prince Charles's birth.

Like Trish Simpson-Davis, I hope there will be a third volume; I finished the book today and am really missing Nella, whom I have come to love as though she were a favourite aunt. I want to know what she thought of the Festival of Britain and the Coronation festivities - the 1950s decade was much more upbeat and optimistic than it's painted nowadays by people who weren't there!

Stella Lanham


Trish replied:

I wonder how much has been omitted by the editors – maybe we should visit the Brighton archives and find out! This isn’t a woman to forget. I’ve thought about her quite often since reading the book in the autumn, mostly in admiration at her fortitude and optimism. As you say, she is like a familiar and favourite aunt.


Jerry Last said:

Dear Bookbag

I am Nella's youngest grandson (a brief couple of interviews on the BBC Dear Diary programme 18.1) and yes, I too agree with Trish Simpson-Davis's review. I am very proud of Nella and humbled by her strength and determination and also think of her often. We could all learn something from her life record.

Having read some of the original material from later years (post Peace), there is a wealth of information and passionate commentary yet to be made available. I gather Victoria Wood wanted to do more and perhaps the editors/publisher will agree. I wish I had more resources to research further but perhaps others will be willing and able to.

I agree that the cover was not a suitable reflection of the contents and her personal situation.

Jerry (Jeremy) Last