WANTED: Mass Observation needs your remarkable stories

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

Wednesday, 29th August 2018, 11:31 am
Updated Wednesday, 29th August 2018, 11:36 am
The BAFTA-winning ITV drama, Housewife, 49, by comedian Victoria Wood, was inspired by the wartime diary of a Lancashire mother.
The BAFTA-winning ITV drama, Housewife, 49, by comedian Victoria Wood, was inspired by the wartime diary of a Lancashire mother.

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 Observations. Her diary gave her the courage to reveal both her marital woes and fears for her son who was in the army.

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.

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Dorothy Sheridan, who helped to publish Nella's diary in 1981. (s)

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 Observations - a social research organisation - is seeking 200 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.

Nella Last's diaries, in which she wrote intimately about her turbulent life as a 49-year-old housewife at the outbreak of the Second World War. (s)

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 about 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 honest feelings about 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 TV star said.

"There was a story underneath of a woman in crisis."

To sign up log on to www.massobs.org.uk or for more information contact [email protected] or 01273 337515.

MO factfile:

* Based at The Keep at the University of Sussex, Brighton;

* Created in 1937 by anthropologist Tom Harrisson, film-maker Humphrey Jennings and poet Charles Madge;

* Uses 500 volunteers who write about their lives;

* Archive now has 3,000 boxes of notes.

* Champions vulnerable and voiceless groups, like the prison community and ME sufferers.

Who's used it?

* Researchers, social workers, students, artists, community groups and the general public etc.

* Film-maker Kevin MacDonald for Youtube project, A Life in a Day, which was turned into a film.

* Andrea Levy for her Orange Prize-winning novel Small Island.

* Simon Garfield for his trilogy Our Hidden Lives, We Are At War and Private Battles.

Diary extracts:

* 1940 Air-raid observation – “There has been quite a fuss in some of our newspapers lately about young men using the Tubes as air-raid shelters. One paper even started a campaign to kick them out... I feel rather strongly on the subject. For I came back from a birthday party to find Hitler’s birthday present. My office windows busted in... It is psychologically almost impossible for people to live quite alone in the chaos of sound which our anti-aircraft barrage lets loose over London every night. For instance, a young insurance collector, left alone by the evacuation of his mother and the absence of his father on a long job, just could not stand sleeping in the house by himself, so he now goes every night to the local tube station, where he sleeps fully dressed sitting on a bench... It’s only human to want company in times like these.”

* 2009 Diary on friendship – “My best friend died this past year. I miss her so much. She was always there when I needed her or she needed me. We kept going for nearly 70 years. I was just a toddler when Mary came into my life... We spent weddings, birthdays, Christmas together. She stayed with my mother when my husband nearly died having a triple bypass. He was in intensive care for six weeks. We looked after Mary and George and visited them in hospital. For 40 years they came once a week to play rummy with us. My mother died in 1982, my husband in 2000 and last year within three months I lost both Mary and her husband. I shall miss Mary for the rest of my life. She was part of our family.”