Monday 6 January 2014

When I first saw her name I detached the surname from the first name. Nella Last’s War. Nella Last’s Peace. Nella Last in the 1950s. These are the three published volumes of her diary, of which no one, perhaps, has read the entirety.

Even Nella sounded like the remains of a name. Last, her husband’s name (he ran a joinery shop) leaves her there, complete, in the diaries she was prompted to write by Mass Observation, founded in 1937 to see what people were doing with their days. Nella Last was identified as: Housewife, 49. Last seen in Barrow-in- Furness, then Lancashire, now Cumbria, England. As I read her diaries I find myself setting her life next to mine, her Barrow-in-Furness next to my Inniscarra, her wartime my uneasy peace. What would Nella Last think? I ask myself several times a day. Halfway into the first volume I didn’t want them to come to an end. When I went to the library every day as an adolescent, I thought I might find a writer whose books were infinite(ly reassuring). For a while, after finding PG Wodehouse, I thought he or she might be in the Ws.

I read Nella’s diaries in the wrong order, starting with the last volume, then the first, then the second. I was a child in the 1950s; this was the world in which I grew up. My parents did not talk about the war. My mother’s fear lurked. My father’s photographs of soldiers in groups, projected as needs must. A piece of shrapnel in a box. A group of men in khaki. That was the war. I was one of Hitler’s children; I did not seek out my baggage.

Nella Last supplied a war I didn’t know; lurching from ordinary effort to extraordinary terror. Such focus on daily needs and practical care in the everyday, the home and the community, the soldiers, food, tea; making do. I had no idea. WW2 was the piece of shrapnel that did not hit my father; my mother’s terror; the holocaust and the word for it inseparable.

Nella Last’s Peace included the time of my birth in the worst winter anyone could remember. The freezing winter was the war all over again; the difficult peace. No wonder I breathe lightly, walk a knife edge. For the first couple of months of my life, there was wailing, freezing and falling over on the ice; you had clothes on but you were naked to the bone.

Nella Last in the 1950s is so close to her own dailiness I can see my mother, a couple of hundred miles south and east, clothing us, feeding us; you did what needed to be done, my mother said later, defensively. You concentrated on simple things and hoped the difficult things (children, parents, war, need) would resolve themselves. You made do, you managed, you lied: ‘Funny how a lie can make you happier than the truth’, says Nella.

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