One eye on posterity and one eye on the neighbours: watching oneself in the 1950s

By Niamh Cullen

History tends to focus on important, pivotal moments; times of war, calamity, accelerated social change, revolution or unrest. But what happens when life gets back to ‘normal’ so to speak? When things began to calm down after those first few weeks of 1789 – even though the revolution continued – some people at least had to get back to work. And in May 1945, what happened after the first few days of relief and celebration? Soldiers returned home and everyone had to adjust to life as normal. But what is normal, in historical terms? And does it ever feel normal to those living through it?

These are some of the questions that the Mass Observation project, set up in Britain in the 1930s, sought to address. So-called ordinary people all over Britain were asked to keep diaries recording the details of their day-to-day lives. The aim, in the words of the organisers, was to bring about a ‘science of ourselves’. Nella Last was one such person; a housewife from the north of England, her wartime diaries were made into a television series, ‘Housewife, 49’. Unlike many of the other participants, she kept writing steadily almost to the end of her life, her diaries continuing right into the 1960s. Her lively and perceptive account of her own life is now published in three volumes, the last of which, Nella Last in the 1950s, was finally published in 2010.

This latest volume is an account of Nella’s life in the early 1950s when she herself was in her 60s. Her life wasn’t quite as fast paced or eventful as it had been during the war years, but her experiences of home and family life, her interactions with the local community and her reflections on what was happening in the wider world are detailed and thoughtful enough to give us a fascinating insight into what ‘ordinary life’ was like in the early 1950s.

The 1950s are often overlooked in the grand narrative of twentieth-century history, sandwiched as they are between World War II and the ‘swinging sixties’. However, even though the war was over, it still cast a strong shadow on the following decade, the memory of the recent conflict blending into a generalised dread of further hostilities on a greater scale as the Cold War dragged on. War was over, but its threat was ever present. Likewise, the dramatic modernisation of society that is indelibly associated with the 1960s actually had its roots much earlier; society was changing rapidly throughout the 1950s as television and immigration, encouraged an opening of society.

Although Nella’s diaries are mostly concerned with the minutiae of everyday life – and perhaps even because of this – we get a real sense of how these developments gradually manifested themselves in people’s lives. Her almost daily accounts of the meals that she and her husband ate, as well as of the trouble she often went to to put them together, are a reminder that the strict rationing and deprivation of the war years were not that far behind. In one instance Nella was complaining to a fellow customer in a shop that the eggs she regularly bought there often had one or two rotten ones in every dozen; when the shop owner then gave her an extra half dozen to make up for it, she could hardly believe her good fortune. When she went to visit her son who lived in Belfast with his wife, she always commented on the abundance of food she saw there, compared with home.

The Cold War cast an acute shadow over life in Barrow and the fear of imminent nuclear war was a theme that constantly crept into the diaries. In June 1950, on hearing that Britain had sent troops to Korea, Nella recorded that she and a friend “talked so sadly of the news, both with a sick feeling that anything will happen, (…) recalling half forgotten memories of our war work together or air raids, blackouts, shortages.” Nella had been a leading member of her local Women’s Volunteer Service during the war, and with the threat of further warfare and destruction hanging over them, the WVS became very active again, requiring volunteers to undergo a full training course to prepare them in case of war. Many of the women grumbled about having to do training drills with gas masks again; Nella and her friends were older now and still exhausted from the recent war. None of them were prepared to give up though, despite their protestations; the diaries evoke the sense of purpose and companionship that the WVS gave her and her fellow volunteers. For women like her who had been housewives before the war, and afterwards again, the WVS was an important link to a wider world beyond family and home. Even as they recounted the terror and exhaustion of the war years to each other, they reminisced about the work they did together – running the canteen, organising meetings and talks, assisting veterans – and the sense of solidarity it gave them.

Now in her 60s, Nella’s world had contracted considerably by the time she was writing these final published diaries; her adult sons had both moved away to Belfast and Australia and her time and thoughts were absorbed more and more by her husband and his health worries. She was by this stage at a remove from a world that was on the cusp of some very dramatic social changes, but her diaries still give a sense of the unease she felt at seeing the world changing before her eyes. She didn’t understand the big fuss about television and rarely watched it. Sometimes this was manifested in the smallest and most mundane of observations; in typical grumpy old lady fashion, she remarked on how people now hung out their clothes to dry on Sundays, not caring about the Sabbath.

In Nella’s ease at blending day-to-day cares with her observations about the volatile world she lived in – from politics and war to fashion and 1950s youth – she manages to illustrate how national and global concerns are always interweaved with the mundane, the everyday and the individual. Particularly for a period like the 1950s where on the surface it might seem like nothing much is happening, looking at sources like these reveal the ferment of activity beneath the surface. Everyday life, it should become clear, was never ordinary.

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2 Responses to One eye on posterity and one eye on the neighbours: watching oneself in the 1950s

  1. kellyhignett says:

    Great post!

  2. Justin N says:

    Considering the difficult times, what an act of kindness from the shop keeper to give her replacement eggs.

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