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An Extraordinary Ordinary Housewife

To her readers at the headquarters of the Mass Observation organization in London, she was merely a number (diarist 5353), an occupation (housewife), and an age (49). The labelling was bureaucratic and impersonal, but it was this very anonymity that gave Nella Last (1889‒1968) the psychological freedom to tell the truth about her life, making her wartime diaries the raw, revealing testimony that they are.

In a moment of rashness in 1937, she had responded to a request for ordinary people all over Britain to record their daily experiences so that the Government could keep tabs on national morale. ‘Housewife, 49’ from Barrow-in-Furness was one of the 500 or so applicants invited to join the diary-writing scheme. Some of them started enthusiastically but soon gave up. Not Nella. From day one, she resolved to fit into her life, along with the usual drudgery of being cook and skivvy for her husband and their two visiting young adult sons, the dashing off of 1,000 words a day on flimsy sheets of A5, which she tied up with string and posted to London each Friday. She would keep up this daily habit till 1966, producing twelve million words in total, making her one of the longest-running and most prolific of the Mass Observation diarists, up there with the accountant in Sheffield who kept going till 1965 and the housewife in Otley, Yorkshire, who kept going till 1967.

It was a rash act to offer her services because her shopfitter husband William (whom she never names) clearly disapproved. Glimpses of his controlling behaviour seep out of these pages, building up an unsettling portrait of a long, dreary imprisonment of a marriage. To write daily anonymous diaries was a quietly subversive way for Nella to put out a call to the outside world.

‘Well, you said you wanted an account of my daily life, Mass Observation,’ one can hear her thinking, ‘and you’re jolly well going to get it.’ In her forward-sloping handwriting, she lays out her life on a plate: the daily tasks, the love of her sons, the putting up of the Morrison shelter in the dining-room, plus what she cooks for supper (‘braised lamb’s hearts with whole tiny onions and lots of hot toast’ when her son Cliff comes to visit), and how her head feels ‘as if it was full of broken glass instead of thoughts’ on the day of the Fall of France, how her husband doesn’t bother to give her a single thing for Christmas, not even a card, and how just as she thinks she is about to die in a bombing raid she regrets never having got round to opening the last tin of fruit salad.

It’s clear she has no idea how good a writer she is. ‘Next to being a mother,’ she writes, ‘I’d have liked to write books – that is if I’d the brains and time.’ To which I want to reply, ‘Nella, you are writing a book! With every pin-sharp observation, you are immortalizing yourself, preserving details of daily life that would otherwise have been lost, and assuring yourself a place in the canon. You do have the brains; and look – by some miracle, although you’re also running a household on a mean little budget, literally warming your husband’s slippers for him, and managing to make nine babies’ nightdresses and fourteen bed-coats out of Winceyette offcuts from the Women’s Voluntary Service Centre, you are finding the time to write.’

Did she sit up in bed in her ‘semi jerry-built modern house’ (as she describes her home with its vegetable garden at 9 Ilkley Road) to scribble out the day’s events beside her sleeping husband, or did she write at the kitchen table? I imagine her at the latter, and so did Victoria Wood, who played her in her own 2006 drama Housewife, 49, a must-watch after you’ve read this book. Wood captures perfectly the slightly stooped gait of the housewife who, at last, is unbending herself and spreading her wings, thanks to two things: the catharsis of writing the daily diaries, and the astonishing new freedom of being allowed to be useful in the outside world, which the war brought to her and countless women like her.

Here’s a glimpse of that new freedom, written after a day working at the WVS Centre. ‘Several times I’ve not had the tea quite ready when my husband comes in on a Tuesday or a Thursday, and I’ve felt quite unconcerned.’ Her lack of concern highlights the fact that her husband wouldn’t have put up with it if she’d behaved like this before the war. ‘Gosh, how I’ve nearly broken my neck to race home in time to brew the tea and pour it.’

Everyone who reads these diaries will be nourished and informed by them in different ways, because they contain so many strands, all the way from the international situation, via the good works of the local ladies, to the spring cleaning, but for me it was Nella’s husband’s expectation that his home should be run like a hotel by his docile, stay-at-home wife that really stood out. His reasoning: ‘I feed you, and clothe you, don’t I? I’ve got a right to say what you do.’ This attitude, Nella dares to write in her diary, ‘is not love, it’s sheer poverty of mind and fear of life.’ Her husband, who is actually the frightened one, has kept his wife in a state of fear. These diaries give us a first-hand glimpse of how the war rescued wives from exactly this kind of imprisoned drudgery.

The fact that Nella is clearly ‘no ordinary housewife’ reminds us that no one is or has ever been ‘an ordinary housewife’. Each one, through all the ages, has had her own flame burning beneath the surface: her poetry, her sensitivity, her awareness of the life she would like to have lived.

Even Nella’s adored younger son Cliff affectionately calls her ‘our dumb blonde’. It’s just a joke, but I wanted to scream, ‘It’s not funny, Cliff!’ But oh, how she loves him. He’s her true kindred spirit, a gentle, loving, artistic soul. (He will emigrate to Australia after the war and become a sculptor.) Thank goodness Cliff exists – otherwise, one feels, Nella would be utterly psychologically alone, with her undemonstrative husband and her narrow-minded, fault-finding in-laws. ‘Don’t change,’ Cliff implores her. ‘Let other women grow hard – you keep nice and soft.’ Her second-favourite person in the world is her elder son Arthur, but she can’t disguise the fact that Cliff is her favourite.

Cliff fights in the war, and Nella is sickened at the thought of it. Yes, she is ‘soft’ – too soft, she realizes. She admits she seems to have ‘a skin less’ than other people and is haunted to the point of nightmares by the injuries and deaths of people in the town when it is bombed. One day her husband tells her that she sobbed bitterly in her sleep. But when he says, ‘I want my boy safe,’ she shakes (again) with rage. ‘Safe for what?’ she retorts. ‘Till his soul dies in his body, and even his body goes back on him with repeated nervous breakdowns, and bitter inward thoughts turn his blood sour and cripple and torment him?’

In other words, she is no pacifist: she believes ‘we must all play our own game as the cards are dealt’. Talking of dealing cards, she likes to read Tarot cards (one reading tells her ‘You will sit alone with sadness in a crowd’), and she also likes to have her fortune told. A gypsy called Madame Curl at Blackpool has foretold the bomb blast that will damage her house.

And talking of beliefs, you may well be shocked in these pages by some of the Last family’s convictions. This diary is a snapshot of what people were really, truly, genuinely thinking, and my jaw did drop a few times. For example, while on the one hand Nella looks at her own honey-coloured tiled fireplace ‘with a wonder that is like reverence’ when she thinks of the Jewish mothers in Europe having to leave their homes, Arthur reveals himself to be a casual anti-Semite. ‘I think I’ve got the Manchester outlook on Jews,’ he remarks one day. ‘A parasitic people who live “on” rather than “with” others.’

Nella’s husband listens to Lord Haw-Haw’s broadcasts from Germany, coming to bed ‘with his eyes starting out of his head with nerves and worry’. And Nella writes on 19 January 1941 (brace yourself for this), ‘I never thought I’d admire Hitler, but today when I read in the Sunday Express that he “painlessly gassed” some thousands of lunatics, I did so. I believe firmly in euthanasia in incurable cases, whether of cancer etc. or of mind disease.’ Golly – it’s one thing to contemplate putting her dog Sol down to spare him the terror of the Blitz (and she actually decides not to carry this out, on seeing his dear little wagging tail the next morning) but quite another to applaud Hitler’s T4 Euthanasia Programme.

Prepare yourself too for the Great Gap in these diaries. A chunk is missing, presumed destroyed. We go straight from Christmas 1943 to May 1945 – so, no D-Day, no Arnhem, no slow grind through the last year and a half of the war. I asked Jessica Scantlebury, who curates the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex, what on earth happened, and she told me that some of the collection got lost, perhaps disposed of after water-damage, or ‘perhaps it was simply not packed up when the Archive moved to Sussex in the early 1970s’.

So, for us and for all the marvellous women who work with Nella at the WVS Centre and at the Red Cross canteen for men manning the anti-aircraft guns (they all call each other Mrs this and Miss that, and never use first names), all too soon it’s the end of the war, and the Centre will soon close. Miss Heath, with whom Nella has worked for five happy years, says, ‘Lasty, I’m going to miss you more than I realized.’ Nella is certainly going to miss her, and the work. She is full of dread. ‘I will not, cannot go back to the narrowness of my husband’s “I don’t want anyone else’s company but yours – why do you want anyone else?”’ On going home, she writes, ‘I looked at his placid, blank face and marvelled at the way he had managed to dominate me for all our married life.’

But then, out of nowhere, her husband makes what almost counts as a grateful remark. ‘By Jove, when I hear some men talking about what they get to eat, I realize how lucky I am.’ To which Nella responds (in her diary, though, not out loud), ‘Thirty years of marriage and two wars for that remark.’

As this part of her diary comes to a close in August 1945 it’s time for leisure again. Petrol rationing will end, and the two of them, tired out and with hair greying, will at last be able to resume their regular Sunday outings to Coniston Water in the Lake District, a place Nella loves and from which she draws strength and calm.

This extraordinary ordinary housewife’s can-do attitude should be an inspiration to us all. One day in January 1940, for example, out of the blue, her local doctor knocks on the door and delivers a minuscule baby to her in a brown paper bag. It’s premature, and he needs her to look after it for a week, as its parents are ill and its granny dying. Nella takes in the baby (a girl), tucks it up in a lined drawer, and feeds it Nestlé’s milk on the hour every hour: just one more task in her very full to-do list.

That doctor was right: Nella Last’s your woman, when you need motherly wisdom, instant practical help and a hot supper, and when you need to win a war.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 75 © Ysenda Maxtone Graham
This article also appeared as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 60: Nella Last’s War

About the contributor

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is keen to cycle round Barrow Island, also known as the Furness Peninsula, and find Nella’s house at 9 Ilkley Road, which you can see on Google Maps. Author of three Slightly Foxed titles, including Terms & Conditions, Ysenda’s forthcoming book, Jobs for the Girls: How Young Women Made their Way in the World of Work, 1945–1990, will be published next year.

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