Adelle Stripe’s novel ‘Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile’ is based on the life of Andrea Dunbar, a playwright whose early plays were put on at the Royal Court in London and later turned into the film ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’. It is also a book which highlights the state of the nation so incisively and damningly that it should become a rallying call for change: all the more surprising and sickening considering it concerns a life lived until 1990.
Apart from her youth, what set Dunbar apart was being a single mother from a housing estate just outside Bradford. Having left school with few qualifications, she found work in local mills and cabs, finding time between long shifts, childcare and abusive partners to pull together those words. Until recently, Dunbar’s work had been neglected, even in her home city. In writing this novel, Stripe has brought Dunbar’s work and talent back into focus and, in doing so, has also thrown a dazzling light on the inequalities which stifle and crush those born without money or status.
I have written of my admiration for the work of Nell Dunn before, and in some ways the career and work of Dunn compares and contrasts with that of Dunbar in illuminating ways. In a recent interview to mark the re-issue of the film version of her novel ‘Poor Cow’, Dunn talked about her first book, ‘Up the Junction’ which was written in a similar way to Dunbar’s plays. Both wrote about what was going on around them: for Dunn it was in working class Clapham/ Battersea in the late 1950s/ early 1960s. For Dunbar it was working class life in Bradford of the 1970s and 1980s. Both women listened intently to those around them and recorded what they heard. Both women were also attacked for producing amoral work, particularly wicked in the way they showed women’s sexual appetites.
But there the similarity ends.
When Dunn started to write she had the props which would support her career: Her family were rich and she had been well educated, providing her with the basic spirit which sets the middle classes up for life: confidence. She had stability at home with her husband Jeremy Sandford, himself an educated writer, and so she was already versed in the rules and norms of the literary world: indeed, Dunn had the connections: it was through her writer friend Christopher Logue that she met Ken Loach who would direct the BBC TV version of ‘Up the Junction’ and the film of ‘Poor Cow’.
Dunbar was born into a poor family on a northern council estate and had none of the back ground or support which blessed Dunn. You could suppose that society had moved on since Dunn began to publish in the 1960s: then Dunbar could only have ever been written about; by the 1980s, at least Dunbar could now be the one doing the writing. But, despite her success her short life was filled with the struggle to survive: as a mother, as a woman, as part of the poor working class and as a writer.
For Dunbar, education was simply something to be endured. As I have written before, possibly the most insidious way in which we are letting down working class children is in the inability of state education to induce a confidence in both themselves and their abilities: middle class children may not be more intelligent, but their confidence and sharp elbows get them much, much further. (And yes, family do play a part but when they too have never known that confidence, how do they instil it into another?) Dunbar was mediocre (at best) at most subjects apart from English where she shone, and she was lucky to have teachers who tried to encourage this talent, eventually leading to the production of her first play, ‘The Arbor’. But, as Stripe depicts her, Dunbar’s lack of confidence and self-awareness meant she understood neither her own intelligence nor talent and couldn’t see that her writing was a product of both: it’s almost as if Dunbar believed the work was some sort of divine intervention which had nothing to do with her, almost as if it were something found under a gooseberry bush.
‘I just stumbled across this writing by accident’
Working Class children often aren’t encouraged to dream because that way leads to heartache, especially if their dreams are out of the ordinary or kick against expectations: don’t get ideas above your station or you’ll come a cropper. For Dunbar this meant she left school with a few qualifications and took a job in a local mill:
‘…Some told her the raw wool was riddled with fleas and ticks when it arrived; they treated the fleece to remove the dirt. They had been given anthrax vaccinations and advised that she should have one too. The skins were grotesque and often riddled with scabies. Goats legs were found rotting in the shipments. Feet and Tails. Mites and muck. Filth ran out of every pore. It took hours to get clean after a shift. Her hand and clothes were covered in machine oil; she chain smoked to block out the stench and swore she would wear white for the rest of her life when she stopped working at the mill’
Despite how it reads, this is the terrible reality of mill work in 1970s and not the 1870s. Stripe is excellent at depicting the grinding, grim work which Dunbar had to take, not to mention the men from whom she expected security but received far less than she’d bargained for, not least bullying and violence. She skilfully builds up the elements in working class life which unwittingly conspire against all those like Dunbar. The ‘system’ was against her from the day she was born and she knew it. She also knew that it wasn’t only her, it was her type, her friends her class:
‘There’s people in Buttershaw a lot more clever than I could ever be. I just stumbled across this writing by accident, whereas other people haven’t had the opportunity to get out and do that.’
Stripe hints at these lost dreams and unspoken pride in a poignant scene when Dunbar, her father John Brian and the rest of the family travel to London for the opening night of ‘The Arbor’:
‘Andrea looked over at John Brian, who had just spilled brown sauce onto the new shirt that Alma had bought him for the play. He was covered in sausage roll pastry flakes.
State of him, Alma glared at him from across the aisle.
Andrea whispered from the corner of her mouth.
He’s still got all them books in the loft. I remember when me and Pam went up there one day. Encyclopaedias and maps with bits of paper stuck to them. All his writing. He went mad when he found us rooting about.
That sounds about right. But I think deep down, behind all that front, he’s dead happy for you. Never stops talking about you down the pub.
He’s a funny way of showing it, Andrea said.
She opened her bag of make-up and applied a layer of mascara which juddered as the train rocked on the tracks.
Honest to God, Alma said. I’ve never seem him more excited that I did last night.’
Stripe is careful not to take individuals to task for Dunbar’s struggles. The London literary world appears to have made little effort to try to fully understand Andrea, to understand her world: They were, I suppose, as trapped in their moneyed bubble as Dunbar was trapped by poverty. Of course, in some respects Dunbar was her own worst enemy: it is clear that she could be an awkward bugger when she wanted, especially, it seems, to those who were trying to help. Even her close friends could only support her to a certain degree – after all what did they know about the literary life in that there London? These were two worlds colliding, frustration being the outcome for both. Dunbar, however, was the only one in this deal who understood life on the Butterworth Estate; understood and knew the true cacophony of voices which at once stimulated and then stymied, making her writing so difficult. This dynamic would haunt Dunbar’s career: when the film of ‘Rita, Sue and Bob Too’ was released there were voices on the Butterworth – those same voices which had provided her with such fantastic material – angry at what they perceived as Dunbar’s betrayal, providing a distorted view of their lives for laughs and money. And Andrea certainly shared this feeling of exploitation, of mockery:
‘They’re laughing at all the wrong bits’
And that hurt, because this was her life, her family, her people. Stripe beautifully depicts the clash of cultures with a sly wink to the reader in one excruciating scene when Max Stafford-Clarke, the producer of her plays, pays Andrea a visit:
‘He wore his best silk Paisley short for the occasion, a pair of red cords, polished Chelsea boots, and carried a satchel with a typed up copy of Andrea’s new play enclosed.
Good afternoon, he said. It’s so lovely to see you. Thank you for inviting me here. It’s simply wonderful to see where you live.
His expensive aftershave filled the room and grabbed the back of Andrea’s throat.’
When ‘Rita, Sue and Bob too’ was released it was billed as ‘Thatcher’s Britain with her Knickers down’ and came under attack for the unbridled attitude to sex displayed by the characters, primarily Rita and Sue. This, coupled with the unashamed depravation on display in the film, meant that in some quarters these women were seen as beyond the pail, somehow unworthy: slags. And this view of women echoed through Dunbar’s life, with the beatings she received from men and being left alone to bring up three children. Stripe captures this claustrophobic misogyny by framing Dunbar’s life with the crimes of Peter Sutcliffe, aka The Yorkshire Ripper. Throughout the 1970s, Sutcliffe terrorised the women of northern England and when caught, he was convicted of murdering thirteen women and attempting to murder 7 more. Some of the Ripper’s victims were prostitutes, some were not, and this coloured the police enquiries:
‘He has made it clear that he hates prostitutes. Many people do. We, as a police force, will continue to arrest prostitutes. But the Ripper is now killing innocent girls.’ Jim Hobson, senior West Yorkshire detective at a 1979 press conference.
It is hard not to draw the conclusion that Hobson, if not the whole police force felt that those murdered prostitutes somehow deserved their fate. None of those women deserved their fate, but this is just one example of how we set one group in society (deserving victims versus ‘innocent’ victims’; deserving poor versus undeserving poor) against another in order to hide the grim reality: a reality which Dunbar knew well enough and is framed brilliantly by Joan Smith:
‘Peter Sutcliffe was always different, but not by a wide margin: the world is full of men who beat their wives, destroy their self respect, treat them like dirt. They do it because they hate and despise women, because they are disgusted by them, because they need to prove to themselves and to their friends that they are real men. Occasionally, for one in a million, it isn’t enough. Peter Sutcliffe was one of those. But when the trees are so dense, who can with certainly pick out the really rotten timber?’ Joan Smith, ‘There’s Only One Yorkshire Ripper’ from ‘Misogynies’ (Faber 1989)
Stripe writes in a simple and clear way, using verbatim lines from documentaries and interviews but necessarily expands this to include fictional internal monologue. In what might otherwise be a harsh, brutal novel, this brings a delicate humanity to the novel, highlighting the fragility at Dunbar’s core. But don’t mistake simple and clear for a lack of complexity: Stripe builds up the layers of a complex character in an extraordinary situation with dexterity, avoiding the pitfalls of polemic to produce a novel which lingers long after you have finished it. There are times when this ‘factional’ style makes the inquisitive reader query whether what they are reading is fact or fiction, which can be a distraction, but this is a minor issue. Stripe has created a fitting epitaph to a great writer and carried out a blitzkrieg bombing raid on the myth of a ‘united’ kingdom, exposing the desperate inequalities to which we have turned a blind eye.
Andrea Dunbar died from a brain haemorrhage in 1990, aged 28. Since that time little has changed in British society. Stripe clearly paints a picture of a divided Britain in the latter half of the twentieth century but now, in the twenty first, we can plainly see that the gap between rich and poor has become wider, not only in terms of income but in terms of life choices: universities are prohibitively expensive; the arts are becoming the privilege of the rich as state education funding is squeezed until the pips squeak; people on estates like Andrea’s are labelled lower than vermin and shunted from pillar to post by government attacks – the ‘Bedroom tax’ being the most famous example – and the greedy councils who turn a blind eye to the dismantling of these communities once they get the scent of the gentrification cash-cow. And the struggle spreads as neighbour turns against neighbour in the desperate need for some – any – form of respect, clambering over one another and pushing new scapegoats to the bottom of the pile: the asylum seeker; the Muslim; the outsider. And the hardship and suffering continues while those in power laugh all the way to the bank.
When she died, Andrea had been drinking to get rid of terrible headaches which had plagued her for days. Her final written words:
‘Bad points: feel very emotional. Only want to drink. Can’t sleep and eat. Hate myself and the way I look. Want to destroy. No time for anyone. Not interested in life. Always tired. Good points: I am trying. Want to sleep. Want to eat. Want to be my normal self. Want to leave the drink alone. Want the kids to be okay.”