Mr Ben Reads - Nella Last's War
The edited real-life diaries of a 50 year old woman living in Barrow-in-Furness, Lancashire during the Second World War. She wrote about being scared, being tired, getting old, getting bombed, and all the other many and various things that went through her head over the course of any day.
It was written for a scheme called the ‘mass observation project’ which was an attempt, started by some thinkers and anthropologists, to find out about how the war’s hardships affected the average citizen. Despite sounding scary to our post-Orwell ears, it was actually a pretty harmless and fascinating project - a social experiment in which people volunteered to have their daily reflections recorded. Obviously it wasn’t a very accurate cross section of the British public, the contributors were a self-selecting group with some reason to want to write for them – whether they saw it as a soapbox, a place to whinge, or a place to judge the actions of those they didn’t like – Nella Last wrote hers because she’d always fancied herself as a writer but had been sidetracked by circumstance, and life in general.
The book is interesting for two reasons, for one, it tells you all sorts of details about life during the war that mainstream historians don’t seem to bother mentioning. Like, for example, the fact that unmarried women were conscripted as well as men – for ‘essential’ work, auxiliary service and all the jobs left vacant by the soldiers. Or that unwanted pregnancies, with the unfathered children and backstreet abortions that came with them, were far more common than many would like people to believe.
The main reason why it’s so interesting, however, isn’t particularly the events she describes, but the feelings and opinions she voices in her more introspective or reflective moments. She is essentially a one-woman microcosm of all the changes in women’s perceptions of their role in society which, we are told, took place on a larger scale during the war. At the beginning of the war she writes little daily litanies, techniques and tricks, everyday domestic details - after a few years she writes in the same way, but occasionally vents her feelings like this:
I want to shout loudly to all mothers, and tell them how important they are, how much more they matter than all the preaching, talking men, who think only in terms of ‘organisation’. Look at the Hitler youth, and Mussolini’s poor moppets… …Let’s give them background, teach them simple rules of life, mentally and spiritually, love them a lot and then stand aside. Why, we would make a new world in two short generations and wipe out the bitter memories, make racial hatreds perish – and better than no man or men ever could
It’s been a good counterpoint to the endless military history books I’ve been sorting and sifting at work – countless tomes on tactics and strategy which have an odd dispassionate tone which I find slightly sickening. It wouldn’t bother me if it wasn’t for the fact that these books sell so well. I mean, commanders need to learn from examples and incidents, but I’m grateful that I don’t. Why the average middle class bloke wants to feel involved with the whole ugly business baffles me.