Nella Last in the 1950s, Edited by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson

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The Independent Culture

Of the hundreds of volunteers who kept diaries as part of the Mass Observation project, one of the most prolific contributors to the scheme was Barrow-in-Furness housewife, Nella Last. Picking up her pen in 1939, she kept a regular diary for over a quarter of a century. This third volume proves a muted coda to Nella's last years and an evocative record of post-war provincial life.

The first few months of 1950 find her still very much in thrall to her difficult husband, Will. A man of fragile mental health, he has dark moods, as viewers of Victoria Wood's dramatisation of Nella's war diaries will recall. They have long dominated the marriage.

The Lakeland fells provide Nella's one escape, and throughout the sunless days of January and February, she hops on the bus to Ambleside, or "careers" around Cumberland's coastal roads to watch the hills "in grey-black silhouette against the wintry grey sky". With her two sons long gone, and the activity of the war years over, Nella's life has taken a turn for the worse.

While rich in personal insight, Nella's diaries also includes the kind of domestic detail that the Mass Observation team were keen to record. Descriptions of austerity menus, weekly cleaning regimes and thumbnail sketches of visiting tradesmen capture the social fabric of a disappearing world. Ever alert to a world beyond Barrow, Nella has shrewd comments to make on issues of the day from the nuclear weapons facility at nearby Sellafield to the crisis in Korea. A visit to London in 1952 to stay with her eldest son, Arthur, proves an unexpected tonic.

A writer of warmth and sensibility, Nella's reflections went well beyond the Mass Observation remit. What we get is not only a historical document, but a self-knowing portrait of a woman whose cheerful exterior was often at odds with the "hollow shell" she felt herself to be inside. Writing in late February 1950, Nella reflects on her own mortality: "I've always had a strong belief in life going on," she noted in her diary. "Not a Heaven where there's singing and walking by green pastures, but somewhere where we got the chances we threw away, or never had, to 'grow'." Thanks to the editorial efforts of Patricia and Robert Malcolmson, Nella did indeed achieve her girlhood dream of becoming a published author, though sadly too late. Nella died in 1968 aged 78. Will outlived her by 11 months.