The Diaries of Nella Last: Writing in War and Peace by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson (Editors)

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The Diaries of Nella Last: Writing in War and Peace by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson (Editors)

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Category: History
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Ng
Reviewed by Ruth Ng
Summary: A fascinating glimpse into the real life of Nella Last as extracts from her extensive diaries take us through the war years and on into post-war Britain. The selected extracts weren't perhaps always what I'd have wanted to read, but still an intriguing collection.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: September 2012
Publisher: Profile Books
ISBN: 978-1846685460

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This work brings together a selection of some of Nella Last's diary entries from the 1940's and 1950's. She wrote from her home in Barrow-in-Furness as part of the Mass Observation project, writing a huge amount of material, some of which has already been published as Nella Last's War, Nella Last's Peace and Nella Last in the 1950s This volume brings together the three previous collections, with new material too, taking the reader through the war years and on into post-war Britain.

Part of the problem in publishing any of Nella Last's vast body of writing must surely be in choosing what to include and what to leave out. I had the sense as I read, especially through the war years, that there were significant jumps and gaps, and although there are editorial notes and comments regarding what has been happening to Nella I still felt that things jumped around a little too much sometimes. Occasionally Nella would mention something, and I would hope to then read more about it in the next few days, but then those passages weren't included. Or perhaps it was simply Nella herself who forgot to continue to write about it! It's remarkable that she wrote so much, considering how busy she was with all of her war work for the Women's Voluntary Services, as well as her own housework, shopping and cooking. It's fascinating to read of everything Nella gets up to, and it's clear that although she was often tired and complained about the women she worked with sometimes that actually her horizons had broadened considerably with the start of the war and she proves herself to be an excellent and valued worker. But to then come home at the end of the day and still manage to write around 1000 words each day is truly amazing!

From a historical point of view the diaries are invaluable in providing a snapshot of real life throughout the war years, and beyond, and of the day to day struggles, the changes that ordinary people saw occurring in lifestyle and values, dealing with rations and blackouts and bombings, and of course the desperate tragedies of the war. Yet what I found most interesting, in the end, was Nella herself. In her diaries she often mentions that her friends and colleagues think of her in one way, happy and cheerful and optimistic, and yet she herself felt quite differently and much of this comes pouring out within the diaries. Her relationship with her husband, too, is fascinating and the collection charts their ups and downs together. You end up with a real flavour of her as a person as she comes to life through her words.

For a view of the work of the Women's Voluntary Service the book provides great insight into what was happening. It's often amusing, too, to read Nella's personal opinions of both events and people, and her writing is often at its best, I felt, when she is gossiping! Throughout the book she prides herself on her home management skills, and I enjoyed reading about the different activities she got up to around the house, the meals she made and even about the bomb shelter they put up in their dining room! She writes quite plainly, at times, giving bare facts, and then at others her writing seems much more fanciful and poetic. She certainly had a way with words, and a knack with description.

Nella often experienced health problems, as did her husband, and so some of the writing sounds quite depressed and can be a little bleak to read at times, but fortunately there is often a funny moment or observation to lift the mood again a few pages on. As I read I wasn't entirely sure that I would get on with Nella, had I met her in real life, as she has quite strong opinions and there are some racist comments that she makes which are difficult to read. Yet there's still something compelling about her writing and I had the feeling that I'd have been drawn to her anyway, even if I didn't particularly like her!

This is certainly a fascinating collection. I haven't read the previous works so I don't know how much duplication there would be, but on its own it's a comprehensive look at a remarkable woman's life during a significant period of history. I was frustrated by some of the editorial choices, feeling some entries jumped around too much, and occasionally they struck me as rather an odd entry to include, but I can appreciate how difficult a task it must have been to select only some to go in the collection since she was such a prolific writer. I don't think it's a book I would return to again, hence the suggestion that you might prefer to borrow it rather than buy it, but if you're a history buff then I suspect you will want your own copy!

For more war time commentary try Our Longest Days: A People's History of the Second World War by Sandra Koa Wing or for historical reference then do read A History of Modern Britain by Andrew Marr

Buy The Diaries of Nella Last: Writing in War and Peace by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson (Editors) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Diaries of Nella Last: Writing in War and Peace by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson (Editors) at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Diaries of Nella Last: Writing in War and Peace by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson (Editors) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Diaries of Nella Last: Writing in War and Peace by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson (Editors) at Amazon.com.

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