Sussex University help to keep Nella Last's story alive

BAFTA-winning Lancashire comedian Victoria Wood knew there was something extraordinary about the lives of 'ordinary' people - especially those fighting to survive.

Dorothy Sheridan, who helped to publish Nellas diary in 1981 ELN-180813-154925009
Dorothy Sheridan, who helped to publish Nellas diary in 1981 ELN-180813-154925009

For it was the resilience of a Barrow mother struggling to get by which inspired her ITV drama, Housewife, 49.

Nella Last began writing intimately about her turbulent life as a 49-year-old housewife at the outbreak of the Second World War for a project called Mass Observation. Her diary gave her the courage to reveal both her marital woes and fears for her son, who was in the army.

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It was a story TV star Victoria Wood wanted the world to hear. And so she set about writing her own tale which would shine a light on the soldiers fighting not on the battlefields but in the home.

Nella Lasts diaries from the archive ELN-180813-154919009

Victoria, in an interview with the University of Sussex in 2006, said: “This is not the war of the newsreels - it’s about tiny domestic difficulties, chilly church halls, lumpy custards. And Nella is fighting her own war, one that she hopes will end in liberation.”

Now Mass Observation - a social research organisation - is seeking anonymous volunteers just like Nella who can provide a snapshot of regular life. But above all, the scheme helps people to discover their own voice and talk about their dreams, passions and problems.

Jessica Scantlebury, the project’s supervisor, said: “We’re offering a chance to contribute to history and be part of a social movement which will benefit people now and for generations to come.”

This summer volunteers can share their honest thoughts and feelings on: the Fire and Rescue Services; You and the NHS; and Purses and Wallets.

Kirsty Pattrick, project officer, said: “MO’s early work provides a unique lens into everyday life in Britain through the voice of the public.”

The notes are sometimes personal, reflective and candid, she added, and contributors can share as much as they want to, on their own terms.

The project was prolific during World War Two when diary-writers revealed not only the bravery of the British during the Blitz but also their secret fears and doubts about victory; and in 1981, Dorothy Sheridan, the former head of special collections at the University of Sussex, helped to turn Nella’s diary into a book. It was named Nella Last’s War and published 13 years after the housewife’s death.

Dorothy said: “The diary demonstrated that so-called ordinary people could be historians of their lives. The story of life during the Second World War as told by this articulate and sensitive woman opened up a way of thinking about history and women’s lives that is rarely available.

“Women have been excluded not only from the historical record until very recently but from being seen as legitimate historians. Nella is as much a historian as any learned scholar in a university because she not only described the world, she also interpreted it.

“By offering her an outlet and in valuing what she had to say, Mass Observation did us a tremendous favour.

“It provided her with what she imagined a sympathetic audience.

“Because she wrote so candidly and movingly, she spoke for all women, especially mothers.

“Some people feel she was lonely and a bit frustrated and the diary-writing was a form of comfort for her.”

In fact, it was Nella’s honesty about her feelings towards the war which mesmerised Victoria Wood.

“I read the book over and over and began to find things beneath the surface that I was interested in,” the actress said.

“There was a story underneath of a woman in crisis.”

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