Nella Last – was an ordinary woman in many ways. Yet when she began to write diaries for the Mass Observation she found her voice. It proved to be a quite extraordinary one too. Her observations of her family, friends and neighbours with whom she had shared the war years in Barrow certainly made for fascinating reading in the first book of her diaries. Although what I particularly liked in that book was the minute recreation of daily life for ordinary people during those long and difficult war years. Nella’s work with the WVS and the people she met who she would otherwise never have met made it a hugely readable and memorable book for many people.
In this book Nella’s writing is still just as good – maybe even better – she’s had many years of practise by this time – yet these diaries do concentrate mainly on the lives of the people around her. Nella does comment a lot however, about politics – both nationally and locally, never frightened to say what she means. She too, is unfailingly honest – admitting for instance to a certain amount of colour prejudice. She is a wonderful observer of people and here too she is quick to criticise those she finds hard to understand. Nella’s honesty is particularly poignant in her descriptions of her husband’s depressive illness, and the challenges this presented her.
Throughout her diaries Nella’s love of Cumbria and the lakes is infectious. She is a wonderful chronicler of Barrow in the 50’s and brings the period to life for us reading her words now. Nella delights in occasional trips into the Lakeland countryside; bargains found on market days, celebrates the good news of one neighbour while condoling over the fate of another.
“Friday, 5 October
We went to Coniston. Never have I seen that quiet lake more serene and lovely. Its glass-like surface was a phantasy of shadows of fell and hil, difficult to tell where shadow ended and substance began. Such a wonderful day for Donald Campbell – a country man answered us there had been several such days – a real worry for him and his staff when they are away fixing up yet another something or other.”
As good as these diaries are – and I do think they are – I didn’t enjoy reading them as much as I had expected. I don’t think I was really in the mood for non-fiction – but actually enjoyed the first third of the book a lot – before I became a tiny bit restless with it.