Three books, an absorbing read…but not wildly exciting

Yes, It’s still snowing. And freezing. And snow is falling from the roof. Which makes the stuff already lying around really deep.For once the thuds and bangs heard round here are not things being knocked over, but the falling of large amounts of snow. Ho hum! I am not quite suffering from cabin fever, yet, partly because of Son One’s Harry Potter outing. Things are getting bad when I’m even making mince pies and washing up.

The time has come to write about some books that I have been reading for a few months. They are not for everyone, I can imagine, and not wildly exciting, but I enjoyed reading them.

Nella Last was the subject of Victoria Wood’s “Housewife 49” film that has been repeated frequently on ITV. I actually watched most of it under difficult circumstances last January, but despite this I was keen to read the first (and best) book of the trio, which deals with Nella’s wartime experience.

Nella was a housewife who responded to the appeal of Mass Observation to record her daily observations on her life.Over the decades which she wrote her diary she must have written many thousands, if not millions of words. She sent them off without editing or revising, and the difficulties of getting paper and expense of postage must have tested her dedication at times. She records her use of rationed food, financial planning, voluntary work and relationships with her husband and two sons. She writes about her memories of her childhood, the challenges of her in laws and those who she works alongside. Her friends and neighbours are also acutely observed, especially in their griefs and challenges. She is a careful recorder of food bought, eaten and stored. This is accurate social history regarding what food was available throughout the forties and early thirties, as a proportion of total housekeeping costs and what was actually available legally. She comments on clothes, furniture, decorating, even the costs of running a car.

Nella is probably most acute in her studies of people, especially her husband. By the time of the 1950s he is very challenging in his behaviour and receiving medical help. Such is Nella’s skill in describing him that the reader is feeling her frustration as so very real.  There are sad pieces,such as when war deaths but also local emergencies dominate her writing. There are also more cheerful episodes when the reader agrees with Nella’s reactions to a situation.  Overall these books represent a real chronicle of a life carefully recorded.

These books are a tribute to the skill of the editors, Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming, and Patricia and Robert Malcolmson. It is thought that nobody has read the entire set of Nella Last’s diaries, as they are so voluminous, so discovering and editing these records  is quite an achievement. If you felt tempted to read these, I suggest you start with Nella Last’s War. If you get hooked, at least you have plenty to read…