Monday, 15 December 2008

Book recommendation - Nella Last's War

Yesterday's sunrise - aren't the colours wonderful? I rather like the reflection in the icy puddles too.

In between jobs, when I need a five minute rest, I am reading Nella Last's War. This is her personal diary written during WWII and submitted for the "Mass Observation" project and I am sure will already be familiar to some of you. I have wanted to read it since friends at Creative Living mentioned it, and the subsequent recently-published Nella Last's Peace (which I also bought from Amazon). I am only in the first year of the war, but her writing has made me think about the demands on my time and how I would cope with the demands made on HER time then. Quite besides the managing on next to nothing, the knitting for our servicemen, the recylcling of surplus garments, material and wool into crib quilts and cot blankets for evacuees, Nella had the constant worry of air-raids (she lived at Barrow-in-Furness, and the shipyard there was an obvious target) and whether her sons were involved in the current battle abroad. Nella was very resourceful, and even used old woollen socks cut and opened up flat and then sewn together to form a utalitarian, but warm, cover. At an auction last summer, two very rough-and-ready quilts made from real oddments of mis-matched material were held up, and a rip in one let the contents fall to the floor - it had been lined with old woollen socks - at the time I thought it was necessity being the mother of invention, but now I realize that perhaps it had a different story to tell . . .

The WVS helped to organise the townswomen into productive groups, and the women in Nella's group were handed out wool to knit bedcovers and the material from dozens of tailors' pattern books taken to be sewn together into something more useful. These women knitted indefatigably: jumpers, socks, balaclavas, mittens, gloves, scarves, for servicemen and seamen. They made pretty things which could be raffled as a way of fund-raising for the war effort. Their hands were never still and a great sense of obligation drove them to push themselves ever-harder.

In Nella's diary, she had a knock on the door one day and opened it to find a young man with a bag, which he handed to her saying that the Dr had sent her something to care for (having come upon her nursing a sickly hen in the past). Inside was the tiniest baby she had ever seen - pre-term - its parents were terribly ill with influenza (the mother had a chest infection) and the baby would not have survived if left with them, as they were bed-bound and the grandmother lay dieing in another room. Unperturbed, Nella turned a dressing table round and made the baby a little bed from the drawer, warmly lined with a blanket from the bed, and with the electric heater on to warm the room, the baby was tucked up, swathed in layers of cotton wool and fed an eggcup-full of Nestle's milk and water every hour from a spoon, as there was no bottle available. The only washing it could have was to have a tiny corner of skin wiped down with olive oil and when that ran out - cod liver oil (bet it smelt wonderful after a week of that!) I was thinking how I would relax if the Dr suddenly sent me a tiny pre-term baby to care for in the middle of winter. My own husband spent the first months of his life also in a blanket-lined drawer under the dining table (in case of bombing - this was Manchester), as his mum had first flu and then pneumonia. His aunt and uncle looked after him.

Radio 4 are serialising Nella Last's Peace this week, and I sat down quietly to listen to it this morning, and like Nella, kept my hands busy cutting up strips of red and green materials to tie like hair-rags (does anyone remember their mum making curls for them that way? Devilish to sleep on!) to make a Christmas swag to go over the fireplace. I felt very connected with Nella, and all the thousands like her. She sounded very much stronger and more forthright than she is at the beginning of the war where I am in the book at present. At the beginning her nerves were twanging like piano strings and she sounded like she needed to top up her B vitamins and probably menopausal too!

It is a curtain day here again - have my new ex-display ones hung in the bedroom now and HOW much warmer it makes the room. OH has just handed me some (WWII!) brass curtain rings which I am to sew on the back of the Medieval (ex-shop-display) pelmet so he can do a Heath Robinson system of hanging it across the archway in the hall . . . Photos to follow.


Rowan said...

It's a great book isn't it? I've read and reread it so many times. I didn't find Nella Last's Peace so engrossing although it was interesting to read what happened to her after the War, would be interesting to read about the later 'you've never had it so good' years too, Nella wrote for Mass Observation until well into the 1960s so there's plenty more material available.

Kim said...

What a fascinating post, jennie, I think I'd enjoy that book. I may have to look out for it in the New Year :)

Kim x

nancy said...

The books about Nella certainly sound good. I think I would love reading them. I've read a few good books about early American women who pioneered the settling of the land and am always amazed at the industriousness and resilience they portray. I've also been interested in the effects of WWII on the nations affected by it, during and after. I'm about to start one by Erna Paris called Long Shadows,which purports to address "how countries shape historical memory in the aftermath of calamity". This, through the use of story telling and sharp observation of events covering 4 continents. I think it sounds very promising. Will let you know.