‘Up the Junction’ and ‘Poor Cow’ by Nell Dunn

Up the Junction and Poor Cow, both better known works of Nell Dunn’s, have recently been republished by Virago.  As there are many elements which the books have in common, and as both share the same author preface, rather than address them separately, I have decided to write about them both together.  Nell Dunn’s introduction is like a story in itself, and tells of her life in Battersea from the late 1950s.  It includes such details as, ‘There were still a lot bomb sites, and my two-year-old son would be taken by the big girls and boys to play King of the Castle on the mounds of building debris’, ‘The night of Princess Margaret’s wedding everyone got drunk’, and ‘I bought my first pair of tight white jeans off a rail in the market’.  This introduction in a sense serves to ground the stories which follow it.

Up the Junction, first published in 1963, is made up of a series of short stories set in South London.  It was awarded the John Llewelyn Rhys Memorial Prize, and has also been turned into a film.  The tales in the collection are all heavily involved in the sense of a community and the mundanities of life in 1960s London.  This is clear from the titles of the stories alone, which range from ‘Out With the Girls’ and ‘Out With the Boys’, to ‘Sunday Morning’ and ‘Wash Night’.  The book’s blurb states that the stories ‘are unhibited, spirited vignettes of young women’s lives in South London in the sixties [where] money is scarce and enjoyment must be grabbed while it can’.  To further set the scene, one supposes, all of these stories have been told by way of dialect heavy conversations between its characters – for example, ‘It’s me birthday tomorrer’ and ‘It’s better to marry an ugly man what’s got god ways than a good-looker what’s sly’.  It is not often clear who is speaking, so in consequence, the reader learns next to nothing about any of the characters who fill its 130 odd pages.

Three protagonists are followed in Up the Junction, Sylvie, Ruby and Lily, all of whom work at a local sweet factory.  The entirety of the book, on the surface of it, looks to be heavily involved with sexual politics, but as one reads on, the fixation upon aesthetics becomes clear.  Each of the characters seems to place much emphasis upon their own appearances, interrupting even important conversations to ask if their hair looks nice, or if their new item of clothing suits them.  Examples of this can be found in sentences such as this one: ‘[Pauline] was pretty in the dirty cafe; full ashtrays and dripping sauce bottles; sugar-bowls with brown clotted lumps in the white sugar’.

The stories are evocative of bygone times – there is lots of dancing, ‘snoggin”, institutionalised racism, National Health glasses, the pawning of furniture when money is tight, illegal abortions and the WVS.  Stories take place in the factory where the protagonists work, the local pub, the Old Kent Road, and various dwellings around the area.  Whilst interesting enough, these stories are relatively similar, and in consequence, nothing really stands out amongst them.  Sadly, the majority also do not feel well-developed enough to have any lasting effect upon the reader.  ‘Sunday Morning’, for instance, would have been far better with further explanation of the situation.  The illustrations, drawn by Susan Benson, are randomly scattered through the pages and rarely match the writing which surrounds them.  It does not feel as though there is much within Up the Junction which the modern reader will be able to identify with.  The simplistic writing style also takes away any atmosphere which the stories could feasibly have had.

Poor Cow was first published in 1967, and was Dunn’s second work of fiction.  Margaret Drabble, whose introduction to the story has been reprinted in the new edition, calls it ‘Touching, thoughtful and fresh…  A tour de force’.    In her introduction, Drabble states that after her move to London, Dunn ‘was soon to be writing of the lives of working-class women in a way that struck the same chords as the plays and novels of Sillitoe, Osborne and John Braine…  Nell Dunn felt she had discovered a world where women did not depend on male patronage, where they went their own ways, sexually and financially, where there was plenty of work’.

The novella tells the story of Joy, ‘twenty-one, with bleached hair, high suede shoes, and a head full of dreams’.  When the story opens, Joy is making her way down Fulham Broadway on her ‘slum-white legs’ with her new baby in tow, ‘his face brick red against his new white bonnet’.  ‘Her life seems to be a catalogue of disasters, which follow naturally and inevitably from the first false step of letting herself get pregnant’, Drabble says.  She adds that Joy’s husband, Tom, is a thief, ‘which translates her into a nice close-carpeted flat in Ruislip’.  Neither Joy nor her husband are content with their lives: ‘He always wanted more out of his life than what he had’.  When Tom is caught in a stolen car by the police, he is hauled in and sentenced to four years in prison: ‘… course he had only to do two years out of that you see…  But I hadn’t even the heart to sell the furniture, I just walked out and went to live with my Auntie Emm’.

The story is told in a variety of narrative styles, which chop and change at whim.  Joy’s own narrative voice is written in a similar dialect to that captured in Up the Junction: ‘Terrible when you ain’t got fuck all, you ain’t got nothing’.  As with Up the Junction, it is not always clear here who is speaking.  Poor Cow is not overly engaging, and the uncertain style of its writing and narrator let the story down somewhat.

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