I’m currently reading … “Nella Last’s Peace”

I’m currently reading … “Nella Last’s Peace”

Housewife, 49

From time to time, I thought I’d share the details of a book which I’m reading; as of today, I’ve read 90 books so far this calendar year, but don’t worry; I’m only going to review or mention the really great ones which have a gender angle.

“Nella Last’s Peace” is a sequel to, yes, “Nella Last’s War” (filmed for TV a couple of years ago, with Victoria Wood in the title role, as “Housewife, 49”) and it’s also written as diary entries. Nella was a housewife living in Barrow-on-Furness, an English north western ship-building town, when the second world war broke out in 1939, and she contributed her bit to the war on the home front’s efforts by working for the Red Cross, running a mobile canteen to feed servicemen and, most memorably, writing a diary about her wartime experiences for Mass Observation.

(For more examples of published and edited WW2 MO diaries, check out Simon Garfield’s three compilations, which are all quite wonderful if the war on the Home Front is of interest or fascination: “We Are At War”, “Private Battles” and “Our Hidden Lives”).

However, unlike most of MO’s contributors, Nella not only stuck like glue to the concept of writing regular diary updates and posting them off to the MO team each week (I’m sure if she was around today, she’d be a dedicated blogger), she also continued once the war was over, and this is where the second book, post war and set in austerity Britain, picks up her story. I’m currently up to late 1946 and this particularly poignant extract resonated with me, as Nella ponders to the pages of her diary about how she feels post-war and asks herself what she will do with her life now that she is no longer “needed” or employed in useful wartime service:

“I sat so quiet and still … longing for a job of some kind. There seems so little to do in Barrow and so many to do it. Women like myself who have been busy and useful, feeling they were helping, cannot find a way to help the peace as we did in wartime. With 2000 women on the Labour exchange [ie, unemployed], it would not be not be right to do anything [men] could do, yet I know many who, like myself, long to do something.”

I wonder how many other “Nellas” found themselves in a similar position sixty-odd years ago: unemployed, unwanted in a commercial sense, and yet brimming with energy, feeling they had contributions to make and wanting to be part of a wider world beyond the domestic environment?

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