In the late 1950s Nell Dunn and her husband Jeremy Sandford moved to Battersea, south London, to witness what they saw as ‘real life’. Both came from privileged backgrounds – Sandford via public school and Oxbridge, Dunn via her rich industrialist father – and found working class life in Battersea exotic, almost another planet – which, to them, it might as well have been. However, the pair found work , made friends and Dunn began to record the stories which would eventually form ‘Up the Junction’.
In fact, these are barely stories at all. What Dunn actually produced are short impressionistic sketches of the life and people around her: days in the sweet factory, nights out with the girls; on the common with the boys. These sketches are so light, so delicate that the pen barely touches the page – occasionally almost all we get are conversations:
Outside in the yard the toilet is aswim with piss. Rube blacks her eyebrows. ‘Terry doesn’t reckon I should go out with anyone but him, but I tell him straight, ‘I ain’t got no rings on my fingers ,cept my own!’
‘Has Dave kissed yer tonight? You wanna get him worked up. Give him a love-bite. That’ll get him at it.’
‘Tom and Ronnie are going to do a clothes factory and get us each a new rig out.’
‘Sylvie was well away in the back row at the New Vic. They put us right up the front so we couldn’t do nothin’. I was choked.’
Back in the club the music blares out of the juke-box. Rube dances, hands up and down thighs.
‘I haven’t half studied the form on that bird.’
I reckon I’m the only one out of this lot what’s at work.’
‘You bin swimmin’ Sylv?’
’I wondered why you looked so clean.’
Incidents are recounted in simple, basic prose which is snapped into relief with a jerk of familiarity:
‘Finally the ambulance arrived. They took Rube away, but left 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.’
Notice how it is not the dead baby which horrifies most, but the wrapping in the common daily newspaper, like chips.
Like the TV adaptation which followed (directed by Ken Loach) the novel caused a frisson of controversy in describing an (illegal) backstreet abortion. However, the strength of ‘Up the Junction’ lies not in its power to shock, but in its unadorned depiction of unapologetic female sexuality. These are women who love and lust and treat every moment like it’s their last. This life is sometimes not pretty: the gruesome (illegal) abortion, the brawl between Sylvie and her ex-husband, but the women bounce back, proud and undiminished. These women were the same as those observed by Tony Warren and amalgamated into the bosomy, brassy (if, understandably more censored) form of Coronation Street’s Elsie Tanner who first appeared a couple of years before ‘Up the Junction’s publication.
‘Up the Junction’ is a slight book but one which needs the reader to take time to adapt to its rhythms and form – a form which is unusual to modern eyes but one which, at the time, sold thousands of copies. Reading ‘Up the Junction’ in 2016 also brings with it a sadness, in that it seems to be very rare for contemporary fiction to present such clear, unadorned images of working class people, stories which don’t patronise or sensationalise*. Some might accuse Dunn of exploiting the friends she made: indeed, in a radio interview with Margaret Drabble, Dunn herself brought up the issue. At the end of the day we only have the author’s honourable intentions and the finished work to go on and I find firmly in Dunn’s favour.
I love this book, just as I love the work of Nell Dunn. It possesses a spare beauty, a poetry of the everyday and I still remember the first time I read it as a teenager and fell for it, hook, line and sinker:
‘He leant back against the concrete wall, scrawled over the chalk drawings and girl’s names, the silver chain taut against his narrow throat. Then he says, ‘Do me a favour’
‘What is it?’
* A recent example is Colin Barrett’s excellent ‘Young Skins’, stories about the small Irish town of Glanbeigh.