Saturday, 28 March 2015

Up The Junction - Nell Dunn


We all know Nell Dunn was slumming it when she moved from Chelsea to Battersea and started writing about the lives of the working class people there but I'm sure that if I'm able to forgive her for it then anyone can. I mean, did anyone accuse George Orwell of slumming it for going off and living like a tramp then writing about it in Down And Out In Paris And London? Did anyone accuse Wilfred Owen of the same when he went off to the trenches in the First World War and started writing his poems? Not that I'm comparing life in Battersea during the Sixties to the life of a tramp or to the horrors of Flanders but you know what I mean?

Nell Dunn's father was a knighted industrialist and her mother was Lady Mary Sybil St Clair-Erskine, so yes indeed, she did come from a very privileged, upper class background. Bearing this in mind, I must admit that when I hear the word 'culture', unlike Herman Goering I don't reach for my revolver but when I hear the words 'privileged' and 'upper class' I do tend to reach for my surface-to-air missile launcher. In Nell Dunn's case, however, I make an exception due entirely to the calibre of her writing.

She moved to Battersea, in London, with her journalist husband Jeremy Sandford in 1959 having just married, their wedding reception having been held at the Ritz. They bought themselves a tiny house and Dunn took a job at a local chocolate factory. The house, according to Dunn was "the most beautiful place I have ever been to. A grapevine grew wild over the outdoor lavatory and the garden was full of sunflowers six-feet high with faces as wide as dinner plates. At the end of our street were four tall chimneys..."
Her house, her fellow women workers at the factory, the local community and the life therein all enchanted her and it's the observations she made of all these things that went to form her d├ębut novel, Up The Junction.

First published in 1963, essentially it reads like a writer's equivalent of an artist's sketch pad. Dunn watched, listened and observed but also obviously joined in to the best of her abilities and became a good friend to a number of people there. It's a very specific style she writes in, focussing primarily on dialogue linked by brief descriptions. It's minimalist but very effective, very evocative and at times very powerful. The dialogue is all. Conversations, quips, exchanges, remarks, exclamations, statements and whispered intimacies; all flow into one and other to create a complete story. Shining through and elbowing its way to the forefront, however, is humour. Whether said in innocence or with the full intention of being funny, the humour is bawdy, sad and stupidly delicious. The stuff of high comedy. At times it's even reminiscent of the humour of Withnail And I, which is no bad thing at all.
Nothing is judged, belittled or mocked. Dunn simply records. But what she picks up on is - as the blurb on the back cover from the Daily Mail correctly pinpoints - harshly truthful yet poetic, and it's this aspect of the book which is the cause of controversy. Lewd banter is recorded verbatim along with racism, upfront female sexuality, the normality of criminality, and - most controversial of all - abortion. Back street abortion.

If you tend to judge a book by its cover then you'd be inclined to think Up The Junction was simply lightweight pulp fiction. Not that there's anything wrong with pulp fiction but Dunn's book is much more than that and to a large degree I think it's been mis-sold and misrepresented. How powerful and heart-rending, for example, is this:
'Rube was shrieking, a long, high, animal shriek. The baby was born alive, five months old. It moved, it breathed, its heart beat.
Rube lay back, white and relieved, across the bed. Sylvie and her mum lifted the eiderdown and peered at the tiny baby still joined by the cord. "You can see it breathing, look!"
Rube smiled. "It's nothing - I've had a look meself."
Finally the ambulance arrived. They took Rube away, but they left behind the baby, which had now grown cold. Later Sylvie took him, wrapped in the Daily Mirror, and threw him down the toilet.'

Mary Whitehouse objected to it, in all likelihood because everything about Up The Junction is so real and so human. It reads like a very accurate depiction of what life was like in a working class area of London during the Sixties, where the times were a-changing and cultures were colliding. All played out to a soundtrack of American pop songs and pub sing-a-longs.

Dunn went on to write Poor Cow and the stage play Steaming, both of which were made into films. Up The Junction was also, of course, filmed firstly by Ken Loach as a play for the BBC and then as a film proper in 1968 starring a host of 1960's British cinema actors and actresses including Liz Fraser, a young Dennis Waterman, Maureen Lipman (who is brilliant in it) and Hylda Baker. It also, of course, formed the title to the classic song by Squeeze...

John Serpico

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