DBF Preview: Writing in War and Peace

Pop over to the Durham Light Infantry Museum to hear the diaries of WWII wife Nella Last.

On Saturday 20th October, Durham book festival takes over the Durham Light Infantry museum and for all you war and history enthusiasts, this will prove to be an unmissable day of events. Between 12:30–5pm there will be the opportunity to explore the minds of Carina Rodney, DLI writer in residence, Tony Banks, a Falklands survivor and Robert and Patricia Malcolmson, who edited the mass observation diaries of World War II housewife Nella Last. The museum has reconciled an impressive array of diary extracts, letters and voices which build the collective voice of the DLI, providing an ideal backdrop for these three talks. This year, they focus not just on the terrors of war but on the intimate experiences of soldiers and civilians and the importance of writing in preserving the more subtle thoughts and feelings in society’s consciousness.

The first event, ‘Writing in War and Peace: The Diaries of Nella Last’, really captures the essence of understanding the significance of the individual voice. Nella Last, a housewife from Barrow-in-Furness, began writing her diary aged 49 following the Mass Observation Project appeal in 1939, and continued until 1966. She write that she “longed to be clever and write books” and 13 years after her death her dream was made possible when editors Braud and Flemming published her first book ‘Nella Last’s war’ succeeded by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson in ‘Nella Last’s Peace’ and ‘Nella Last in the 1950’s’ . Her “scribbles of such an ordinary person” have also been the basis of a BAFTA award winning drama, ‘Housewife 49’, staring Victoria Wood. Patricia and Robert Malcolmson have recently assembled all of Nella’s work into one congruent volume, bringing together the best of her effusive confessions together with new, unpublished material. From British Columbia, they are visiting the book festival to talk about Nella and the art of diary writing.

Social historians Patricia and Robert Malcolmson are a husband and wife collaboration, both with experience in editing and publishing material on English history since 1700. They joined forces to work with some of the best Mass Observation diaries, the most recognised and prolific of which being those of Nella Last. Robert Malcolmson says that Nella, “was a talented writer” and the popularity of her diaries is primarily owed to the introspective manner , poetic illustrations and comic style which touch the hearts of so many historians and leisure readers alike. He emphasizes the uniqueness of her writing saying, “it became a personal refuge for her thoughts and she loses track that others might read it.” Unlike other World War II two diarists such as Virginia Woolf, George Orwell and Charles Ritchie, Nella’s diaries provide a refreshing perspective. They have an inherent rawness and immediacy of emotion unseen in writing of politicians, intellectuals and the middle- class who wrote for the purposes of publishing. Professor Summerfield from the University of Manchester has conducted a study that shows how four generations of women have been able to identify with Nella’s writing on a personal level; a testament to her enduring relevance.

Nella Last wrote on Tuesday 27th July, 1943, “we must all fight the real battles ourselves and for ourselves. At best, others can only stand by.” Join Nella’s editors, who have studied her inner voice closer than anyone, and immerse yourself in the personal experiences of a woman who has become the voice of the average World War II civilian. Learn what makes individual perspectives so important to understanding society under any conditions and how one particular dedicated “scribbler” was able to become what David Kynaston (BBC Radio 4) described as “one of the major twentieth- century English diarists.”

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