Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Up the Junction by Nell Dunn

This was an odd little book, recommended to me by my mum, during a rare moment discussing her youth. It was a library copy, as she doesn’t own the book any more, although she apparently vividly remembers reading it! She doesn’t remember how old she was when she read it, but I doubt very much it was on publication, as she’d have been thirteen in 1963.

Not really a novel, more a series of short sketches in the lives of three young women living in South London during the sixties; it was most interesting to me as an insight into how different women’s lives were in the early sixties to now. From reading this book, it seems women were just beginning to get some freedom, although this is a long way from any major feminist movement. They go out weekend evenings, yet they seem to have to fit into the already established male social scene, drinking brown ale, and waiting to be asked to parties and gatherings by various, sometimes random men. In fact, finding men, attracting men and sleeping with men seems to be a major focus of these women’s lives.

“We stand, the three of us, me, Sylvie and Rube, pressed up against the soon door, brown ales clutched in our hands. Rube, neck stiff so as not to shake her beehive, stares sultrily around the packed pub. Sylvie eyes the boy hunched over the mike and shifts her gaze down to her breasts snug in her new pink jumper. ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’ he screams. Three blokes beckon us over to their table.”

Their personal lives can sometimes go very awry though, and details are not spared in this book. There is a horribly descriptive story of a back street abortion, and its dramatic conclusion. The language was plain and straightforward but, it was the imagery it brought about that was so powerful.

“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.”

However, as well as the personal lives of these young women, we see their day to day lives in many of the vignettes. They live their lives for the weekend, working hard at the sweet factory, but these tales include moments of life that are completely alien to me, writing in the 21st century. There are two stories involving someone called a Tally-man, which was a totally new concept to me. Goods sold door to door, at exorbitant prices and then paid for weekly. And now I’ve written that, it occurs to me that it sounds similar to catalogue shopping so perhaps not such a strange concept after all. But as described in this book, definitely a much more malicious and conniving system, described in detail, as a particularly unpleasant man details how he keeps his customers constantly in debt, and makes them believe they have a good deal. In fact, money, or more specifically a lack of it, permeate all the stories, with people only really earning enough to get by, and discovering ingenious ways to make it stretch, or have what they can’t really afford. The start of the credit nation perhaps?

“’Shall we go up the Pay-as-You-Wear and choose a couple of frocks?’
‘I thought you were skint?’
‘Pay as you wear, berk! You only have to put down bout fifteen bob deposit.’
‘And then you pay the rest off weekly’”

There are numerous events in this book that are just the women going about their daily lives and witnessing things happen, speaking to people about things that have happened, or just discussing events between themselves. Combine that with the fact that it is mainly dialogue, and colloquial dialogue at that, it was easy to feel the characters emotions and feeling about what was happening, and their emotional commitment to each other shone through their own language. .

I said at the start this was an odd book, and I spent a lot of time trying to pin down what I thought was odd about it. I finally came to the conclusion that it is the lack of any character definition. The three girls, Lily, Sylvie and Rube are indistinguishable from each other a lot of the time and it is often difficult to tell which is speaking, but somehow this doesn’t seem to be a problem. I think that is where the oddness came from. The characters are so indistinct, yet I still enjoyed the book, and I wanted to keep reading. It seems to have a universality (for the time), and it is precisely this blurring of the characters which gives the book its character. These women could be any working class women, their experiences will all be very similar, or they would at least have known other women who had been through similar experiences. At least, that it is the impression I came out of reading this book with.

I did enjoy this book. It was interesting to read, the lives of these women were so different and the options open to them so much more limited, yet it wasn’t that long ago. Obviously reading this now I can old this view, but what was running through my mind most when I read it was how it would have seemed to women reading this soon after publication. Would it have been scandalous, or exaggerated, or just plainly and simply describing their lives. I’d love to know.


anothercookiecrumbles said...

Boy, that does sound odd. I see it's a VMC, which is reason enough for me to read the book, but your review's gotten me curious about it... I do wonder though, how I'd deal with blurred characters. Normally, I like each character to have a strong voice and traits, which define them.

Jo said...

Yes, so do I. Somehow it just seems to work here.
As far as I'm aware, it's the first VMC Ive read, but it's got me interested, and undoubtedly won't be the last.

Charles Jenkins said...

I remember reading the book when it was first published. It was a mild scandal then - a well-educated girl from a good family living in BATTERSEA and writing about such stuff!!! Nell Dunn was a talented person - she, I believe, also was involved with 'Cathy come home', the BBC Play that caused an even greater scandal that dealt with the HOUSING, or rather lack of HOUSING in post-war Britain AND the horrors it brought people a little down on their luck. As a child, we were almost homeless and found it very very hard to find somewhere to live. The film was made by Ken Loach, her husband, still, I believe.

Up the Junction was filmed with the same woman that played Cathy - Carole something, I forget - it also starred Terrance Stamp in his 'matinee idol' days - I remember him singing COLOURS, the Donovan song. They made a sequel of the film about thirty years later here in the US called THE LIMEY - it was actually very good and had a great 'twist' that I never saw coming.

I was a Clapham Junction for the first time in about 40 years recently and although it has changed, it is still remarkably the same. The children's children of the girls in Up the Junction were wandering the streets with kids in tow and moaning about their lot in life.

Obviously the circle was NOT broken!

Charles Jenkins said...

After a little research, I realise that I have confused Neil Dunn's Up the Junction with her Poor Cow story - however, I never really saw a great difference between the two tales.

The sequel film was to Poor Cow - sorry about this - put it down to my having a 'senior moment'!!!

Both Poor Cow and Up the Junction are worthy of reading and seeing their films. I also recommend 'Steaming', which I saw in New York on Broadway, where it was NOT well received ..... and .... best of all Cathy Come Home. Thanks to Tim Roth, this BBC-TV play was shown on Turner Classic Movies a few years back when he was guest 'chooser of the films' - poor Robert Osborne was visibly upset by the play ......... as we all were!