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.”
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: