Book based on Mass Observation diaries of Nella Last shortlisted for major prize

The cover for The Diaries of Nella Last: Writing in War and Peace

A book by University of Sussex alumnus Robert Malcolmson based on the Mass Observation diaries of housewife Nella Last has been shortlisted for the prestigious Portico Prize.

Canadian Robert, who studied for his MA at the University of Sussex, co-edited the book, Nella Last in the 1950s, with his wife Patricia.

The couple’s edited narrative of the life of a northern housewife is vying for a prize of £10,000 alongside nine other nominees in the non-fiction category, including literary luminaries such as Simon Armitage (for Walking Home), Jeanette Winterson (for Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?) and Jean Sprackland (for Strands).

Nella Last was a Cumbrian housewife with a talent for writing who chronicled her life and times for the social research organisation Mass Observation.

Many other Mass Observation diaries, now held in the Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex, ended with the conclusion of World War II.

Nella, however, kept sending in her diaries to the Mass Observation office in London and continued writing until 1966 (Nella died in 1968). Her diary, consisting of around 12 million words, is one of the longest in the English language.

A first volume of her diary, Nella Last's War, published in 1981, was turned into a popular TV adaptation, Housewife, 49, by the actress and comedian Victoria Wood.

The Malcolmsons focused on later entries from Nella’s diaries with their first selection published as Nella Last's Peace - the Postwar Diaries of Housewife, 49 and picking up the story in 1945 with victory over Japan, through to thoughts of emigration to Australia in 1948.

Their latest selection, The Diaries of Nella Last: Writing in War and Peace (Profile, 2012), contains almost 100,000 words that have not been previously been published.

Robert and Patricia Malcolmson say: “Nella Last’s voice is an extraordinary, often spellbinding testimony to mid-twentieth century culture. We feel honoured that the way we have selected, arranged and explained her words has been recognised. The real honour is to Sussex and, in particular to [Mass Observation Trustee] Dorothy Sheridan, for ensuring  that Nella’s words are here for all to see.”

The Portico Prize is biennially awarded to the highest quality books set wholly or mainly in the North of England and is supported by the Arts Council England and The Zochonis Charitable Trust.

The shortlist was drawn up by a panel of judges including 6Music DJ and writer Stuart Maconie and the poet Adam O’Riordan.

The winner will be announced at a gala dinner at Manchester Town Hall on 22 November.

Meanwhile, Patricia has been busy with another Mass Observation Archive project – a book chronicling people’s attitudes to their crowning glories. Me and My Hair: A Social History, was published by Chaplin Books this month and draws on responses to the 2001 Mass Observation Project Directive on hair and hairdressing.


Notes for Editors

About Mass Observation

The Mass Observation Archive results from the work of the social research organisation, Mass Observation. This organisation was founded in 1937, with the aim of creating an 'anthropology of ourselves'. It recruited a team of observers and a panel of volunteer writers to study the everyday lives of people in Britain. This original work continued until the early 1950s.

In 1970, the Archive came to the University of Sussex and was opened up as a public resource for historical research. The Archive holds all the material generated by Mass Observation between 1937 and 1949, with a few later additions from the 1950s and 1960s.

The original Mass Observation idea of a national panel was revived from the Archive in 1981. New volunteer writers or 'Mass Observation correspondents' were recruited from all over Britain.

The Portico Prize Non-Fiction shortlist:

Simon Armitage Walking Home

Henrietta Heald William Armstrong: Magician of the North

Patricia and Robert Malcolmson Nella Last in the 1950s

Keith Richardson Jack’s Yak

Alan Shelston Brief Lives: Elizabeth Gaskell
Bill Williams Jews and Other Foreigners
Jeanette Winterson Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Keith Wrightson Ralph Tailor's Summer: A Scrivener, His City and the Plague

Chris Wadsworth  The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Drawing

Jean Sprackland Strands

University of Sussex Press office contacts: Maggie Clune and Jacqui Bealing. Tel: 01273 678 888. Email:

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Last updated: Tuesday, 30 October 2012