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LASTING DIARIES – Seeking historians of the future inspired by Barrow’s ‘Housewife, 49’

A fresh batch of diary writers are being sought to document our tumultuous times and mark 80 years since Nella Last began her famous diaries.

In September 1939 as Hitler invaded Poland, in Barrow Mrs Last began writing her intimate descriptions of life through the war years for the social research organisation, Mass Observation.

So compelling were her daily dispatches, they went on to be used not only by historians, but were famously dramatized by Victoria Wood in the award-winning TV adaptation ‘Housewife, 49’ and performed by Imelda Staunton on BBC Radio Four.

This year, BBC Radio Cumbria, Up for Arts Cumbria and Barrow Library have won backing from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to commission a new generation of diarists.

“Nella Last helped people know what it felt like to live in Barrow in Britain in the middle years of the 20thcentury, we hope these new diaries will do that for 2019,” said Jennie Dennett who’s leading the project for Up for Arts Cumbria, a partnership between BBC local radio and the national charity Voluntary Arts.

“There’s so much happening now – we’ve got Brexit on the horizon, ongoing austerity, climate change and tech that’s rapidly transforming everything from our high streets to the way we date. These are not boring times!”

The Last Diaries project is looking for people with a passion for writing to start keeping a daily diary at the end of September. The best extracts will be voiced by actors for broadcast on BBC Radio Cumbria and kept afterwards at the Mass Observation Archive (MOA).

“Nella Last was Mass Observation’s most prolific writer,” said Jessica Scantlebury who looks after the MOA today at Sussex University. “Her diary, consisting of around 12 million words, is a mesmerising testimony to mid-twentieth century culture. We are delighted to be collaborating on this project and capturing what life is like for the new generation of Nella Lasts in 2019.”

Submissions will be anonymous for 50 years with diarists known by their profession and age, so just as Nella was ‘Housewife, 49’, the new diarists could be ‘Welder, 62’ or ‘Student, 18’

Readings from the new diaries and from Nella’s writings will also be available via a listening post in Barrow Library dressed like a 1940s living room, complete with a vintage armchair & antimacassars.

Ruth Prosser of Barrow Library said: “People share their experiences every day via social media but so often these are edited projections of people’s best selves. Diaries have stood the test of time as a means of self-expression and observation that’s proved invaluable to their authors and to historians.”

Cumbria County Councillor Kevin Hamilton, chair of the Barrow Local Committee said: “This is a great opportunity for people to be supported to write for themselves and to create something that could become as useful and famous as Nella’s diaries.”

The project will launch with an outside broadcast at Barrow Library on September 10th with BBC Radio Cumbria’s Caroline Robertson. There’ll be free biscuits & cakes baked to WW2-era recipes, a workshop to help aspiring diary writers with Ulverston author Zosia Wand and together we’ll be creating a mass participation portrait of Nella from 29,000 ration stamps!

Over the following months, the diaries will feature on air along with famous Cumbrian diarists and guests sharing their teenage diaries.

Anyone interested in in keeping a diary for the project can fill in the application form online at https://bit.ly/lastingdiaries

Or email any queries to jennie.dennett@bbc.co.uk.

All enquiries will be dealt with in the strictest confidence.

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