Nell Dunn's 1963 Up the Junction, reissued by Virago as a Virago Modern Classic (#284 by the way), exudes the essence of life in Battersea, London at a time when life was both harder and easier. Harder because not everyone had a bathroom, the young were often skint, and petty crime was rampant. But easier too, as neighborhoods were real communities, families were close and friends even closer. Nell Dunn moved to Battersea in 1959 and I wonder how much of her is in the "heiress from Chelsea" narrator.
"I had the first bathroom and all my friends came round to try on one another's clothes. I had my hair bleached and done in a beehive. I wore skin-tight white jeans and I rode on the back of a motor bike."
"I hope these books capture that extraordinary vitality when the day began around six, eating fresh rolls on the way to work and often ended after midnight kissing somewhere forbidden, someone forbidden."
Yes, indeed, she captures that feel perfectly. It may have been a bit before my time but reading these stories made me feel like I was there and I could imagine it all perfectly. Up the Junction is a slender book filled with interlinked stories. Really they feel more like vignettes or sketches. In the introduction they are called "a distillation of experience". Reading them put me in mind of Jennifer Worth's Call the Midwife. While Worth writes about a slightly earlier era, she also tells stories of the people she served and helped as a midwife. Dunn's world is equally as colorful and vibrant, the characters less 'characters' than almost larger than life personas, loud and idiosyncratic.
Each story is a slice of life, life lived by working class people in an area where they literally lived on top of each other. Lily, the narrator, tells us about her best friends Rube and Sylvie, but also about their boyfriends and crushes, their families and neighbors. You get a sense of their sorrows, pain, happiness and triumphs. Though they are also tinged with sadness, too, for the harsh world they lived in. And Dunn writes with the cadences and language that was Battersea ca. 1960 with lots of snippets of songs and slang. Yes, beehives and miniskirts, painted nails and laughing voices.
"Life's so drab you've got to wear something bright ain't you, 'Sheil?"
There's not one story here but many. They revolve around the three girls, older teenagers, who work in McCrindle's sweet factory by day but go out with their mates at night to scope the local talent. They're not too worried about their boyfriends, since always another beau is around the corner. And while they feign innocence, they are older beyond their years, and it isn't just a worry about ending up "in the club" but what happens after, when they actually are.
"The record finishes. She whispers in my ear, 'Isn't he a darlin'? I don't half fancy a snog tonight.' Her black hair hangs long and thick. 'He's a couchty-mouch. After going steady for six months you get a bit fed up, snoggin' with the same bloke every night. And I've noticed when we're out Terry'll start staring at some other bird. He'll say to me, 'You all right, love?' And then his eyes will wander off and get affixiated on some silly cow. 'What are you lookin' at then?' I says. 'Am I so borin'?"
Dunn wrote about a world that now is long gone. Progress, better housing and more modern conveniences ushered in a new era of living standards but saw also the demise of a way of life. And like other parts of London the later gentrification of places like this meant that only the wealthy could afford to live in the places that were once populated by an entirely different strata of society.
Up the Junction and the preface and introduction to the volume were all most interesting and intriguing to read. The stories may have filled an afternoon full of pleasant reading, but it wasn't just empty fluff. The book serves as a sort of lesson in social history, in the most authentic of ways. Here is a look at London street culture that will never be quite the same again. Four of the stories in the collection were published in the New Statesman. The book was apparently a controversial success (not surprising considering some of the topics she tackles--all quite realistically with no sentimentality and even by today's standards just a bit shocking still) and it won the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize.
Dunn wrote other books as well as a number of successful plays and several film scripts. It seems she is best known for her novel, Poor Cow (which I now must get my hands on). Both it and Up the Junction were made into popular films. The cover of my edition shows a film still. The books/films were only two of a number made at a time when Realism was in vogue. Mention is made of A Taste of Honey, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and a film I recall watching when I was in high school, Letter to Brezhnev. The latter (starring a younger Peter Firth of MI-5 fame!) can be viewed on YouTube (I can vouch for that as I watched the first third before making myself stop to write this post).
Up the Junction is exactly the sort of book that Virago would publish--one that does not shy away from difficult issues and situations, and it's the sort of book which makes me appreciate VMC books more and more. It's the first of hopefully many I will be reading this year. Very much recommended.