In a storeroom at Sussex University lie the records of Mass-Observation, an organisation of anonymous people-watchers which in its heyday ran into much criticism. Some of its supporters made large claims for its methods and findings; respectable journals hailed a new form of social research, while others jeered; Evelyn Waugh complained of ‘pseudoscientific showmanship’. During World War Two a minute by an official in the Ministry of Home Security described Mass-Observation reports on blitz morale as ‘a most extraordinary mixture of fact, fiction and dangerous mischief’ emanating apparently from ‘the intelligentsia’ (see Living through the Blitz by Tom Harrisson, co-founder of the organisation).
Unabashed, the nameless observers continued their social ‘snooping’. They eaves-dropped in shopping queues, measured the incidence of applause at cinema newsreels and analysed the graffiti about Hitler on lavatory walls. In Plymouth after a night’s blitz one observer presumed to judge morale by reporting what proportion of housewives had their washing on the line. From the London West End came a report that prostitutes were carrying on in the black-out by shining a torch in the pocket of a white raincoat. The woman author of a war diary, who had felt guilty because her town had escaped bombing, was at last able to report a near-hit: ‘Never in my life have I experienced such pure and flawless happiness.’ Alert observation, hard facts, subjective impressions, random gossip and inner thoughts – these were the stuff of Mass-Observation.
The latest raid on the archive at Sussex has yielded Nella Last’s War, boldly presented as the ‘most remarkable’ of the war diaries and even more boldly as ‘unique in the English language’. On the jacket is the boast: ‘Film rights sold to Thames Television’. One of the editors, Suzie Fleming, is described as a feminist, and the publishers were chosen because of a ‘commitment to the experiences of “ordinary” people, and especially women’. The book has been edited down from the two million words turned out by Mrs Last, a housewife of Barrow-in-Furness, in between domestic and other chores. How much praise or criticism she received at the time from Tom Harrisson or his aides does not emerge. Judging from her diary, she was not one to over-look compliments paid to her and it would be sad to think that none was ever forthcoming.
Nella Last is nearly 50 when the war begins, old enough to remember the earlier war and to be a user of sal volatile. She is disillusioned with her husband (‘that one’, as she refers to him at one point), chiefly because he takes her attendance on him for granted and never wants to go out: he also infuriates her by listening to lies on the German radio. She loathes her in-laws, especially her father-in-law, whose shop-fitting business her husband took over on (she thinks) disadvantageous terms. What keeps her going is concern for her ‘boys’. The elder, Arthur, graduates as a tax-inspector, immune from call-up, and marries his landlady’s daughter in Ulster. Cliff, the younger, something of an ‘odd boy’ who writes poetry when depressed, is called up and shunted from one arm of the Services to another. The Lasts live on a ‘nice little estate’ and their house has an oak-panelled hall which is the diarist’s especial pride. They run a car until mid-1942.
So far, so ordinary. Mrs Last busies herself mightily to raise funds for hospital supplies and prisoner-of-war parcels, and later helps in a canteen. The assiduity with which she converts every stray strand of fibre into saleable dolls, dishcloths and hot-water-bottle covers is prodigious. However, all this fails to preserve her from a fatal and lowering habit, ably identified by a fellow member of the Women’s Voluntary Service: ‘You think too much, pussy, too much thinking is bad.’ Some of this thinking is clearly stimulated by the demands of that war diary. Mrs Last feels, moreover, that she has to match news of great events with heightened emotions, rather as a travel writer feels the need to inflate his language when looking on a Lost City. The reader will quickly learn to make allowances for her powers of self-dramatisation and also for her capacity to detect, as she thinks, signs of tension in others (she has a history of ‘nerves’ and breakdowns). When the war begins she remembers the young sailors she saw in Barrow at the time of Munich. They all had such a ‘brooding, far-away look’ that she wanted to rush up and ask them what they could see that she could not. ‘And now I know,’ she exclaims. She is for ever spotting people with dull eyes, over-bright eyes, frightened eyes, ‘shut-in looks’ and similar symptoms. Even when the war in Europe is over she writes: ‘I looked searchingly down the queues for any signs of “nervy” women on the edge of breakdown, but they looked pretty robust, if a bit impatient.’ It may be that Mass-Observation encouraged her in a habit which came naturally.
Since most of us can bear the sufferings of others with fortitude, it would be wrong to mock Nella Last’s obsession with visions of drowning sailors and slaughtered hosts: but she does seem to be forcing her feelings. The sight of tap water makes her agonise over those who are dying of thirst. Yet this housewife who keeps experiencing the need to howl, whose head from time to time feels full of broken glass, is regarded by her fellow voluntary workers as a pillar of sanity, even a larky soul: they never hear the tears hiss on the hot iron. Oddly, she can go into the garden and kill a cockerel without any parade of sensibility, and she has a ruthless way with live plaice and lobsters. More oddly, she can read with entire approval a report (in January 1941) that Hitler has painlessly gassed some thousands of lunatics: an act of clemency which, to her surprise, her husband enthusiastically endorses.
Little in the way of hard incident occurs. One day Nella Last receives a present of a premature baby in a brown paper bag – ‘a wee hen for you to coddle’, according to the messenger. The mother has the flu and this temporary fostering is the idea of the doctor, anxious to spare the baby infection. When the infant’s aunt, a bit of a wag, arrives from Ireland she says: ‘What a God-awful-looking child – but then our lassie never did finish anything she started.’ Another day a churchwarden calls to solicit support for the vicar, who is eager to take on a curate: he is told there is a war on and goes away with a flea in his ear. There are occasional spats and jealousies among the WVS ladies. Eventually the bombs fall on Barrow and a near-hit damages the Lasts’ home. The night’s ordeal in the Morrison shelter does not bring pure and flawless happiness to this diarist, but instead leaves her with two odd sensations: ‘one a calm acceptance of “the end”, the other a feeling of regret that I’d not opened a tin of fruit salad for tea – and now it was too late.’
The world changes round Nella Last and she changes with it, despite appeals by her sons (who dip into her diary) to stay always the same – and never wear slacks. She is snappish towards neighbours who ask her to put out incendiaries for them when they are away. As in the earlier war, there is a flock of women workers going round with too much to spend, so Mrs Last marks up the prices of her dolls to punish them. Profiteering is not always wrong. In the engineering works are girls who apparently couldn’t care less when warned that a badly-turned screw can cost a life. Teenage trollops appear on the scene, their eyes bright and unfrightened. Mrs Last discovers that a chemist in the town sells ‘hundreds of 5 s bottles’ of ‘women’s medicine’, widely thought to be the stuff for keeping the birthrate down.
Not every page is irresistible. Despite the heavy editorial winnowing, a great deal of chaff is left. If there are those who enjoy reading how frugal meals can be made to look like peacetime plenty, this is their book. One cannot easily become interested in Mrs Last’s ‘boys’, though it is good to see a tax-inspector giving blood to the point of exhaustion. It is good, too, to see Cliff receive a maternal wigging for putting in for ordinary leave just after a spell in hospital followed by sick leave. Much of the family detail can have been of no concern to Mass-Observation. What was it to them if their observer’s husband, retiring to a separate room when he had a bad cold, did not bother to return to the matrimonial bed when he recovered? Perhaps he was tired of all those curtain-lectures ‘for the good of his soul’. Perhaps he, too, had dipped into the diary and found himself referred to as ‘that one’. It is hard not to sympathise with this rather dim figure. Feminists may not be able to make as much capital out of this book as they would like.
Judging from the glossary, the publishers hope that Nella Last’s War will be read by those – foreigners? – who do not know what grammar schools are or Zeppelins were or what ‘jerry-built’ and ‘Wellsian’ mean. The editors have tightened up the diarist’s style, which was fairly relaxed, while still allowing her to work off studied sayings like ‘I felt pity wrap me like a flame’ and ‘Deep inside me was a harp that vibrated and sang’ (at the time of Dunkirk).
To readers two centuries hence the book could have the fascination that a similar account of life during the Seven Years War would have today. Some of us may be too close to the days of knitted dishcloths and cocoa-carrot-and-suet pudding to be able to extract the maximum relish from this diary. What Thames Television will do with their investment we must wait patiently to see.