Novella a Day in May #26

Less than a week left of Novella a Day in May and I’m feeling quite giddy 😀 So much so that I’m upping my game for the last few days and looking at authors who seemed to favour the novella as they wrote more than one. Today: Nell Dunn.

Nell Dunn came from an aristocratic family, somewhat incongruously as the two novellas I’m going to look at portray working-class life. But Dunn wasn’t a class tourist; she left school at 14, moved to Battersea (now an expensive area of London capturing the overspill from the highly salubrious Chelsea, but in the 1960s before the slum clearances it was fairly dilapidated) and worked in a factory. Her writing always seems absolutely authentic.

Up the Junction (1963, 133 pages) is a series of sketches of life in 1960s south London for three young women, Lily, Sylvie and Rube, living in an area filled with the workers of the local factories.

“The sweet smell of cow-cake from Garton’s blows up the road with the violet smoke from the Power Station…Sylvie and I walk up the summer evening road to the Prodigal. An old lady in slippers comes out of the off licence with a zip bag weighing her sideways. From open windows the tellys call.”

 

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Life is hard for these women, but it is also vibrant, eventful, and energetic. Dunn has an unflinching eye (there is a horrible episode detailing an illegal abortion) but she has affection for the people she portrays and although there is no sentimentality in her writing, there is sensitivity:

 “Ada opens the door crying: her little brother had burnt all her clothes. ‘He set fire to the pram where I keeps them…’ …In Ada’s room the floor is covered in clean newspaper…In the middle of it all stands the smouldering pram. Out in the passage ten pigeons fly about. ‘Aren’t they beauties? Aren’t they darlings?’ says her dad. ‘I have to keep the windows sealed in case one escapes.’”

Dunn effectively captures the voices of the area, humour sitting alongside poverty and desperation:

 “ ‘So I went along to tell his daughter. ‘He’s just dropped dead!’ Of course I didn’t tell her about the bacon puddin’. ‘What have you done with his clothes?’ she says. ‘You’re not havin’ them,’ I says, ‘what about me rent?’ So I takes them round to the rag man and I got twelve shillings and I buys meself a quarter of whisky and a packet of fags…I had a drop of whisky what me brother gave me last night and I meant to save the rest for Christmas and then I thought well I mightn’t be here for Christmas…’

Up the Junction is a fascinating insight into a life that in many ways has passed: the swinging sixties, the dominance of factory work, women seeking emancipation before the arrival of the Pill. At the same time it still has plenty to say about power relations on small and large scales and about human resilience. As a voice of working class women, it is unfortunately still a voice which remains rarely heard.

Up the Junction was adapted for TV in 1965 by Ken Loach (which you can see in its entirety on YouTube) and into a film in 1968. It also inspired this 1979 song by Squeeze:

Unlike Up the Junction, Poor Cow (1967, 141 pages) has an overarching narrative to it, detailing Joy’s attempts to survive as a young single mother when her criminal partners are in jail. The story begins with Joy going out for something to eat in her maternity gown, because her husband forgot to bring any of her clothes to the hospital [contains swearing]:

“Outside in the street a young woman passed pushing a pram, a fag hanging from her lip. ‘Now I look like that.’ She ate the dark brown cottage pie, mixing the mash in with her fork, a great relieving warmth filled her stomach and the sweet tea lifted her spirits. Above her head an ad with a lot of golden girls in bathing suits read COME ALIVE. YOU’RE IN THE PEPSI GENERATION.

‘Fuck that,’ she said as the snow fluttered thoughtlessly against the window pane. She put a penny in the Fortune Teller DON’T REGRET. TRY AGAIN.”

Joy’s life isn’t easy, but she doesn’t seem ground down by it. She gets on with what needs to be done and loves her son Jonny, even though she’s not happy with her husband, Tom.

“He didn’t really want to be happy, or be married like we was. He always wanted more out of life than what he had.”

When Tom’s sent to prison, Joy finds happiness with his friend Dave. However, Dave is also a burglar, and so their happiness is short-lived.

 “Joy was back in Fulham. She’d moved in with her Auntie Emm, who lived in one room, off the National Assistance, and pills.”

In Fulham she gets a job in a bar, and this leads to soft-porn modelling. Joy doesn’t feel degraded by this and refuses to follow a friend into prostitution (sort of…), but she does end up sleeping with quite a few men, discovering that she enjoys sex. I was surprised at how much sex there is in Poor Cow. It’s not detailed but it is referred to and I’d be interested to know if this was scandalous in 1967 or seen as just part of Swinging London?

Joy’s an interesting woman, who doesn’t really know what she wants. Part of her would like a settled life, another part of her acknowledges that all her bad choices were consciously made and perhaps more truly what she desired:

“I’d just like to be secure. You know, something out of life that everybody else’s got. When I’m walking down the road I see people happy, I want that, but when I come to think of it I can have it one day and I may not want it.”

Poor Cow somehow isn’t as depressing as it should be, despite the rather bleak existence of Joy and the nihilism of her lifestyle:

“that night Joy lay entangled in Dave’s arms and thought ‘Even if it’s only for six months that might be six months of happiness and anyway it’s six months of life got through.”

The narrative is mixed, switching between third-person, first-person and Joy’s letters to Dave. This works well, capturing the fragmentary nature of Joy’s life and her conflicted personality.

“ ‘I’ve got a lot to give up,’ thought Joy. She looked round the room. ‘At the same time I haven’t got a lot to give up.’”

Poor Cow shows all the conflict, confusion, freedom, constraint, joy and drudgery for a young woman at a point where a particular society is going through considerable change. It’s neither wholly happy or sad, but it felt wholly real.

Like Up the Junction, Poor Cow was also adapted into a film by Ken Loach, the same year it was published:

“In London it is always a sickly season. Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.” (Jane Austen)

You’re telling me Jane. I travel every weekday from south to east London and I’ve become increasingly aware that my lungs are taking a right battering. Still, I do love the east of the city, as I think it’s the best place to get a sense of the layers of history of London. The street names give subtle clues to their past lives by being called things along the lines of Ale Draper’s Alley and Jellied Eel Pass (OK, I may have made those up) and everywhere you go there is something to learn. I eat my lunch next to William Blake and Daniel Defoe’s graves and an adjacent road is the last in London to have preserved the Victorian wooden block paving. If you’re a massive geek like me, you can watch a little 1 minute video about it here, and because it’s the East End, of course there’s some stuff about the Krays in there too.

This nerdy preamble is to say that this week I’ve chosen the theme of historically-set London novels, stories based in the Victorian era and 1960s, despite both being written in the 1990s.

Firstly, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem by Peter Ackroyd (1994). This short novel weaves together the story of Elizabeth Cree, sentenced at the start of the novel to death by hanging for murdering her husband, with that of Dan Leno, music hall star, and the Limehouse Golem, insane mass murderer preying on the East End poor. Ackroyd has great fun evoking the gothic atmosphere of Victorian London:

“The early autumn of 1880, in the weeks before the emergence of the Limehouse Golem, was exceptionally cold and damp. The notorious pea-soupers of the period…were quite as dark as their literary reputation would suggest; but it was the smell and the taste of the fog which most affected Londoners. Their lungs seemed to be filled with the quintessence of coal dust, while their tongues and nostrils were caked with a substance known colloquially as ‘miners’ phlegm’”

This fetid atmosphere carries off Elizabeth’s mother, and so she packs her bags and gets a job at the music halls. She adores Dan Leno, who takes her under his wing but remains unknowable:

“He was still very young but he could already draw upon an infinite fund of pathos and comic sorrow. I often wondered where it came from, not finding it in myself but I presume that there was some little piece of darkness in his past.”

The narrative is focussed on Elizabeth and so Dan remains somewhat unknown to the reader, but there is a sense that everyone in the novel is unknowable to an extent. As the narrative cuts back and forth in time, between Elizabeth’s story, court transcripts, and the Golem’s diary, the reader is piecing together the story from fragments. In that way it places us in the position of detectives, who obviously don’t arrive at crime scenes to then work a linear story backwards to determine what happened.

Ackroyd’s brain is roughly the size of Russia and his historical knowledge is formidable but never overtakes the story. He has fun with it – there are cameos from famous people: Oscar Wilde, Karl Marx and George Gissing all make appearances. He also has fun with the irreverent, insane, entertaining voice of the Golem:

“What a work is man, how subtle in faculties and how infinite in entrails!”

The film of Limehouse Golem came out earlier this year. From the trailer it looks as if changes were made, notably to focus much more on the investigating detective. If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether I should watch it in the comments:

Secondly, forward to the 1960s and The Long Firm by Jake Arnott (1999). Gangster novels aren’t really my thing, but Susan from A Life in Books convinced me in one of her Blasts from the Past that as I’d enjoyed the TV series I should give it a try. She was absolutely right; it may open with Harry Starks warming a poker in order to insert it into someone, but The Long Firm is an intelligent study of the effects of violence and the damage wreaked on the people who inhabit shady netherworlds of crime.

“Breaking a person’s will, that’s what it was all about. He’d explained it to me once. Harry didn’t like to do business with anybody he couldn’t tie to a chair. He liked to break people. Sometimes it was a warning, sometimes a punishment. Always to make one thing very clear. That he was the guvnor.”

The story is told from five viewpoints in chronological order: Harry’s lover, a peer of the realm business partner, a small time gangster, a showgirl/beard and sociology lecturer all give us their view of Harry but ultimately he remains obscure. This is entirely appropriate: like the Krays and the Richardsons, legend builds up around the life and the crimes and the people themselves become lost.

The Long Firm’s historical detail and accuracy seems entirely authentic, and as in Golem, real life characters – this time the Krays, Judy Garland, and Jack the Hat who narrates one section – make appearances.  Harry himself is reminiscent of Ronnie Kray but is still a believable individual character.

The Long Firm doesn’t shy away from the realities of Harry’s profession in any way but it also doesn’t dwell on it or glamorise it; Arnott is more intelligent and interesting than that. There are doses of bone-dry humour:

“He is fascinated by the world of privilege. A patriotic desire to be part of a really big racket, I suppose.”

The interest in The Long Firm is in the people that revolve around this world: what they gain and what they lose by their involvement, the prices that are paid and why they are there in first place:

“I relied on Harry. And his ruthlessness at least had a certainty to it. He was on to a sure thing. It didn’t seem that I’d have to do very much. But I felt myself being drawn into something. A gravity that governed me. As if I’d always really belonged to seediness and the bad side of things.”

Ultimately, I think The Long Firm is about stories. Why there are so many stories that emerge from this time and section of society, what is truth, what is fable, whether the difference matters, and why these stories are still being told.

The Long Firm was adapted into a 4-part series by the BBC in 2004 and my memory of it is that it was excellent. Certainly Mark Strong is never anything less than compelling: