In 1937, a rather gargantuan project of compiling England’s social history commenced: Mass Observation. Its aim was and is to chronicle day-to-day living in the United Kingdom, and that can mean anything from sending in diaries to filling out questionnaires to writing poems or taking photos. One of their most enthusiastic participants was Nella Last of Barrow-in Furness, who contributed her diaries from 1939 until just before her death in 1968. Her diary is considered to be one of the most extensive in the English language, estimated at around two million words. It’s said that no one person has ever read all of Nella’s diary, but three volumes have been published so far and are well-worth perusing. Only the first has been turned into a film, which we’ll get to later. Many, many people have found Nella’s story compelling. Unlike other diaries of the period, it’s not a rote catalogue of facts, but makes readers see Nella’s world in vivid detail.
Nella’s diary starts on September 5, 1939, four days after war was declared, and she seemed resigned to the new state of affairs. Since she remembered the First World War, she had a slight idea already what the Second would mean for her family–her oldest son, Arthur, was a tax inspector, which was a protected occupation. Her husband, Will, had a joinery shop. Nella’s youngest, Cliff, joined the Army Machine Gun Corps and eventually went overseas. Nella, like any loving mother, was worried to no end.
As long as Nella could keep busy, she was able to stay above her worries, however. She joined the Women’s Voluntary Service, or WVS, right after the war started, and one of her favorite things to do was make rag dolls for sick children. Among other activities she did under their banner, Nella worked at a canteen and ran a thrift store to raise money for prisoners of war.
Nella was an endlessly resourceful woman who delighted in running her home efficiently. It irritated her when her husband gave her a hard time about spending extra money on canned food, but Nella remembered the First World War when rationing was optional, and resolved that this go-round would be different. She was also able to save fuel by cooking stews and casseroles over an open fire.
One of the peculiarities about war is coming up against unusual situations, and Nella had her share. Early in 1940, a doctor brought her a premature baby, Veronica Porter, that needed special care. Her parents were both down with the flu, and the baby’s grandmother was dying. The little girl was so tiny that she could be carried in a paper bag. Too small to take a bottle, Nella spoon-fed her, and under her care, the little girl thrived until her family could take her home. Veronica’s aunt came to visit now and then, and Nella baked bread for the family as well.
This may all sound rather tranquil, but Barrow wasn’t spared from enemy action, and for two weeks in 1941 they endured what has since become known as the Barrow Blitz. Barrow was home to the sizeable Vickers Shipyard (now BAE Systems Maritime), which made it a tempting target for the Luftwaffe. The Germans managed to hit everything but the shipyard, however. In terms of public shelters, Barrow wasn’t at all adequately prepared; some people had to hide in hedgerows during raids. This resulted in 83 people being killed and 330 wounded. Homes got the worst of it, as 10,000 were damaged.
Nella made a hidy-hole under the stairs, complete with a box of cookies, but that idea didn’t last long, and she and her husband installed a Morrison shelter. Many people preferred Morrisons to Andersons, as they didn’t require a trip across the backyard in the dark. Nella’s house took some damage, but she didn’t see the point of making any major repairs until after the war was over.
The war made Nella morosely pensive sometimes, even when bombs weren’t falling. She would see groups of soldiers and sailors on Barrow buses, or her crowd at the WVS, and feel melancholy because she had to wonder which of the faces she was looking at would survive. Moreover, what would be left for those who did survive?
Nella’s home life made her pensive as well. While her husband, Will, loved her in his own way, he preferred her to be like a doll in a bandbox. He expected her to be isolated, and somehow thought this would be mentally healthy for her, which, unsurprisingly, it wasn’t. He didn’t even like her to have friends in, but expected Nella to pal around with his family. During the war, Nella was out with the WVS and busy with various projects, and he also had a steady stream of neighbors coming in to visit. All the activity made Nella blossom, and she found the courage to be her best self.
Her sons noticed the change in her as well. Cliff read Nella’s Mass Observation diary and was afraid his mother would turn mean, but in the end they both found the idea of always staying the same funny. I’m thinking Cliff really enjoyed watching his mother come out of her shell.
Plenty of others have found Nella’s story inspiring as well. In 2006, ITV released Housewife, 49. Written, directed by, and starring the late, great Victoria Wood, the film is an excellent overview of Nella’s life. At an hour and a half, there was no way to include everything, but Wood covered quite a bit of ground. The first time I saw it, I nicknamed it “Nella Last’s Blitzkrieg” because it moves so fast.
The film intersperses scenes of Nella with scenes at Mass Observation by way of contextual shorthand. There are a few liberties taken with the characters. We see the film’s Nella on much more of a journey personally than the real Nella shows us in the diary as far as her mental state–Film Nella initially gets confused, weepy, and almost seems afraid of her own shadow.
Nella goes to see her doctor, who asks her if she has a circle of friends. Or maybe she should join the WVS. “Get out, or go under,” he says.
Easier said than done. Nella gamely shows up at the WVS, but almost chickens out. She’s about to make a break for the door when the captain, Mrs. Waite (Stephanie Cole) sweeps her into the kitchen to make tea for everyone. Nella sits in on planning meetings, and she has to learn not to let women with bigger bank accounts intimidate her. After a couple of false starts, she becomes one of their most active members.
It helps that Nella quickly makes friends with the other women. A kindly neighbor, Mrs. Whittaker (Sally Banks) is always popping out of her upstairs window with town news and soon becomes a regular visitor. She even waits out a raid one night with Nella and Will (David Threlfall) under their stairs.
Nella and Will’s relationship was probably the most altered angle of the film. The real Will Last could be a jerk, but he was more thoughtless and lacking in sympathy than anything. One of the Last’s neighbors, Margaret Atkinson, remembered Mr. Last as being a lovely man but very quiet and shy. Meanwhile, Mr. Last in the film is on the meaner side of jerkiness who thinks he’s acting in Nella’s best interest.
Just as in real life, Nella busily keeps her diary, and the Mass Observation people are shown reading and reacting to it as the story happens. They live Nella’s problems in her marriage along with her and cheer her on when she decides to stay in the WVS. By the end of the film, she’s almost their mascot.
Wood nailed it. She got Nella, and she got the time period. What I like about the film as well is that the dialogue is full of plays-on-words and Wood’s trademark humor, but it shows that Wood could really bring it in the dramatic department. Wood and Nella are a match made in heaven.
I’ve barely scratched the surface of Nella Last’s life, but her writing and Housewife, 49 deserve to be discovered. I can’t recommend her diary or Victoria Wood’s film enough. Both Last and Wood were vital women who not only shared themselves with the world in positive, resilient ways, but provided a unique look at one of most far-reaching events in human history.
Another dose of Shame is in the pipeline, all. Thanks for reading, and hope to see you back here tomorrow!
Last, Nella. Edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming. Nella Last’s War. London: Profile Books, Ltd., 1981, reissued in 2006.