Profile £8.99 (320pp) from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Nella Last in the 1950s, Edited by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson
Friday 10 December 2010
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 What we get is not only a historical document, but a self-knowing portrait of a woman whose cheerful exterior was often at odds with the "hollow shell" she felt herself to be inside.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.
Game of Thrones
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 If you're not already angry about the migrant crisis, here's a history lesson to remind you why you really should be
- 2 David De Gea: Manchester United goalkeeper's £29m move to Real Madrid off - because paperwork 'not done in time'
- 3 Pansexual: What is it - and when did the word become popular?
- 4 Isis releases graphic video showing four Shia 'spies' being burned alive in Anbar, Iraq
- 5 Blood Moon and Supermoon: September to bring brightest – and dimmest – full Moon of the year on same night
X Factor hopeful Mason Noise: 'How is Cheryl Fernandez-Versini in the music business, let alone a judge on the show?'
Wes Craven dead: Why Johnny Depp owes his career to director’s 13-year-old daughter
Trevor Noah, Edinburgh Fringe review: New Daily Show host warms up in inspired style
VMAs 2015: You can already buy ‘Kanye West for president’ t-shirts
VMAs 2015: Taylor Swift and her buddy Kendrick Lamar clean-up at awards - full list of winners
Climate change: 2015 will be the hottest year on record 'by a mile', experts say
Jeremy Corbyn calls Osama bin Laden's killing a 'tragedy' - but was it taken out of context?
Tony Blair attacks Jeremy Corbyn's 'Alice In Wonderland' politics
Theresa May says migrants should be banned from entering the UK unless they have jobs lined up
Iain Duncan Smith 'should resign over disability benefit death figures', says Jeremy Corbyn
UN investigating British Government over human rights abuses caused by IDS welfare reforms