Observing the Masses - Nella Last's Diaries
One of the first projects I worked on for Adam Matthew was the Mass Observation Archive collection â€“ reading through the monthly diaries of the Mass Observers in the 1960s and wondering at the differences in all their lives. Anybody who has done any work on Mass Observation will be well aware of the most famous Mass Observer (though anonymous at the time) and may have in fact followed her life from the Second World War until her death in the late 60s. This woman was Nella Last, and she was one of the most prolific writers of the Mass Observation project. Every month, the staff would receive the heavy package containing her diaries, each one filled with her (in the end) almost indecipherable handwriting, and giving details on everything from what she had for her lunch that day to what she thought about Churchill.
The wartime years diaries have been published and read by members of the public, with some being televised by Victoria Wood. These times were clearly the highlight of her life â€“ the odd juxtaposition of an otherwise devastating time being the time when a person has the most autonomy, power and happiness. During the war, Nella was strong, young and social. She organised the community, rallied the troops and felt the spirit of freedom that had led to the emancipation of women after the First World War. In a world where a woman was still largely confined to the home, the war (with the absence of men) was often the time of bittersweet freedom.
The later years, the years I read in detail, were more a story of ageing and normalcy. Nella planned the meals, maintained her marriage, wished for a bit more variety, and missed her children. Small pleasures were managing her household, listening to the radio, visits and news from her sons, and (eventually) sleeping alone. Her husband was ill, mentally and physically, and her aspirations were confined by the times she lived in. However, her thoughts were heard by the Mass Observation team, and studied by the researchers who now use the archive, and her writings were essential in painting a portrait of 20th century Britain. She lamented that she would have liked to have been an author, if she'd "had the brains and the time". She perhaps would have been pleased that her 30 years of writing had resulted in the legacy she now enjoys.
Nella's writings, as well as the writings of others, can be found in Mass Observation Online.