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‘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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‘The Vet’s Daughter’ by Barbara Comyns

The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns, NYRB

The Vet’s Daughter, which has been turned into both a play and a musical, has just been reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels, Sisters by a River and Our Spoons Came From Woolworths. The novel was first published in 1959, and as well as featuring an introduction written by Comyns herself, this new edition contains an introduction by Jane Gardam, who sets the scene of both the author and her work very nicely indeed. Gardam calls this, Comyns’ fourth work, her ‘most startling novel… the first in which she shows mastery of the structures of a fast-moving narrative… [It] is not about “enchantment”, it is about evil, the evil that can exist in the most humdrum people’.

The opening line alone is intriguing: ‘A man with small eyes and a ginger moustache came and spoke to me when I was thinking of something else’. Our narrator, Alice Rowlands, lives in ‘a vet’s house with a lamp outside… It was my home and it smelt of animals’. Her father’s tyrannical cruelty is present from the first page. When describing her mother, Alice says, ‘She looked at me with her sad eyes… Her bones were small and her shoulders sloped; her teeth were not straight either; so if she had been a dog, my father would have destroyed her’. In fact, many of the similes throughout are related to animals – for example, ‘holding up her little hands like kitten’s paws’, and ‘her lifeless hair… was more like a donkey’s tail’. An unsettling sense of foreboding is built up almost immediately, and much of this too has some relation to the animals which fill the house and surgery: ‘Before the fireplace was a rug made from a skinned Great Dane dog, and on the curved mantelpiece there was a monkey’s skull with a double set of teeth’, and ‘The door was propped open by a horse’s hoof without a horse joined to it’.

Alice is seventeen years old, and her present life in ‘the hot, ugly streets of red and yellow houses’ in London is interspersed with memories of her mother’s upbringing on a secluded farm in Wales. Alice’s dreams, which far surpass her sad reality, consist of the following: ‘Some day I’ll have a baby with frilly pillows and men much grander than my father will open shop doors to me – both doors at once, perhaps’. Alice and her mother are both terrified of her father – her mother tells her daughter that ‘He was a great and clever young man, but I was always afraid of him’ – and his presence fills the novel even when he is away from home: ‘We heard Father leave the house and it became a peaceful evening, except that we had a mongoose in the kitchen’. The fact that her father is even mentioned in the book’s title demonstrates the level of control he has over her. To add to their troubles, Alice’s mother becomes ill. Desperate Alice laments somewhat over her fading life, telling us that, ‘I felt a great sorrow for her and knew that she would soon die’, and ‘Autumn came and Mother was still dying in her room’. Her father, as is to be expected, exhibits his usual cruelty when faced with the news; he sends a man in to measure his wife for her coffin whilst she is still alive.

Throughout, Alice is an incredibly honest narrator. One gets the sense that we as readers see her world exactly as she does, and that nothing has been altered before it reaches the page. All of the characters throughout feel so real, and Comyns has built them up steadily and believably. Their actions do not feel forced, which demonstrates Comyns’ deftness of touch. Whilst The Vet’s Daughter is a sad novel – well, a novella, really – what sadness there is is interspersed with humour and wit. The balance between the two has been met beautifully. For example, just after Alice’s mother’s death, Comyns describes the way in which ‘Already the parrot had been banished to the downstairs lavatory, and in its boredom had eaten huge holes in the floor’.

Tumultuous relationships between characters are portrayed with such clarity of the human condition throughout the book, and the story is both powerful and memorable in its tale and its telling. Alice faces more challenges than the average teenager, but her strength of mind and the way in which she always tries to make the best out of a bad situation endear her to the reader. Her honesty shines through, particularly as her story progresses: ‘I wrote a letter to Blinkers. Although it wasn’t very long, it took me two weeks to write because it was the first one I’d ever written – there had been no one to write to before’. The Vet’s Daughter is a beautifully and sympathetically written book, which takes many unexpected twists and turns, and presents the reader with a story which is likely to stay with them for an awfully long time.

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‘Our Spoons Came From Woolworths’ by Barbara Comyns

Our Spoons Came From Woolworths was first published in 1950 and has been recently reissued by Virago, along with two of Comyns’ other novels.  The introduction to this new edition has been penned by author Maggie O’Farrell, who tells rather a lovely story about her discovery of Barbara Comyns in a secondhand bookshop.  She describes how,  ‘as I have a habit of buying up any Virago Modern Classics I don’t already own, I decided to… make the purchase.  It would prove to be the best fifty pence I ever spent.  I began to flick through the pages as I walked away from the shop.  Just five minutes later, I was so engrossed that I had to stop and sit down on a bench on the Cobb; I didn’t make it back to the holiday flat for some time’.  She believes that Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a novel ‘in which you are never quite sure what will happen next’.

The novel is told through the eyes of twenty one-year-old Sophia Fairclough, who is embarking on a new life as a married woman.  She begins with a striking passage: ‘I told Helen my story and she went home and

 

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

 

cried.  In the evening her husband came to see me and brought some strawberries; he mended my bicycle, too, and was kind, but he needn’t have been, because it all happened eight years ago, and I’m not unhappy now’.  After such introductions to our protagonist have been made, the story quickly shifts back to her impending marriage, some time in the past.  She meets her partner, Charles, on a train journey and talks to him only because both are carrying portfolios.  They soon decide to marry in secret.  Despite this, the information leaks back to Charles’ relations, and she has to bear the wrath of them in all their beastly glory: ‘there was a great thumping at the door and when it opened in tumbled all Charles’s maternal relations.  I tried to run up the stairs, but they just fell on me like a swarm of angry hornets.  One woman in a stiff black hat gripped me by the arm…  She said I was an uncontrolled little beast and when was I expecting the baby…  Charles just looked very white and scared; he wasn’t very much help.’  Several weeks afterwards, Sophia and Charles find that they are going to become parents.  Whilst apprehensive about the news herself, Charles is incredibly negative and dismissing, stating ‘How I dislike the idea of being a Daddy and pushing a pram’, and telling his wife that ‘it was no use crying about something that was not going to happen for seven months, I might have a miscarriage before then’.

As a narrator, Sophia has a lightness of touch, and as such, the happy and sad elements of her life are delivered in the same chatty tone.  Rather than add frivolity to the text, this serves merely to make the unhappy events all the more poignant and memorable.  From the outset, she is a quirky heroine.  She does such things as taking her pet newt to dinner with her and letting it ‘swim in the water jug’, and she believes that the reason she does not see her brother is because ‘they thought I was a bit “arty” and odd, but expect they hoped now I was becoming a mother I would improve’.  She is also delightfully naive, which is the most endearing quality about her.  On her wedding day, she is made to sit in a pew with Charles’ father, and comments ‘I felt a bit scared in case they married me to him by mistake’.

Comyns’ style is engaging, and her writing matches the story perfectly.  Rather than portray a humdrum account of married life and early motherhood, she has made Sophia come to life on the first page.  As a result, Our Spoons Came From Woolworths is a difficult novel to put down.  She creates such sympathy for her protagonist, particularly during the scenes on the labour ward, where she goes to give birth to her son: ‘I longed to see the baby, but they said I couldn’t yet.  It had stopped crying and I was worried in case it was dead.  So I cried about that, too.’  Comyns illustrates the peaks and troughs of life as a parent and struggling to survive on uneven wages in bustling areas of London in the most marvellous manner.  Every lover of literary fiction is sure to find a memorable friend in Sophia Fairclough.

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‘Sisters by a River’ by Barbara Comyns

Sisters by a River by Barbara Comyns

Sisters by a River, Barbara Comyns’ first novel, was first published in 1947, and was originally serialised in Lilliput magazine. The newly issued Virago edition contains an introduction by Barbara Trapido. She believes that the novel is ‘reminiscent of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, though darker and edgier’. She also states that in the book, the very notion of adults are ‘as arbitrary and dangerous as tigers’.

The novel is set on the banks of the River Avon, and the entirety is told in rather a childish narrative voice in a stream of consciousness style. It begins in the following way: ‘It was in the middle of a snowstorm I was born, Palmer’s brother’s wedding night… he had to bury my packing under the wallnut tree, he always had to do this when we were born – six times in all, and none of us died…’, which gives the reader a feel for the rest of the book. To further emphasise the way in which the story is seen through the eyes of a young narrator, Barbara, a lot of the words throughout have alternative spellings. On the first page alone, we come across ‘wallnut’, ‘Fortnham & Mason’, ‘interfeer’, and ‘conspiricy’. Rather than irritate the reader, these misspellings are really quite endearing. They serve as a clever literary tool, with which Comyns has built up a wealth sympathy for Barbara and her sisters.

The sisters are really rather different, and Comyns sets out their often conflicting personalities as soon as she introduces them. Mary, the eldest, ‘was the plainest in the family, but she made up for it by being so bossy’; indeed, she controls everything, down to the colour of the clothes her siblings are allowed to wear – ‘beastly brown’ – and none of them are able to read any of the books which she has enjoyed. Barbara goes on to say that, ‘Next to Mary in our family was a child I shall never mention in this book, because I know they would hate to appear in it’. Then comes Beatrix, ‘quite unlike the rest of us both in appearance and nature… her hair was straight and didn’t have bits of twig and knots in it like ours’. Kathleen is barely mentioned at first, but when she is twelve, Barbara describes the way in which she begins to take on the mannerisms of an owl. The youngest, Chloe, whom the older girls ‘didn’t like’ very much is described as follows: ‘she was rather large and had a fat mauve face and cried dreadfully’. Having so many children has taken a toll on their mother too: ‘After she had six babies at eighteen monthly intervals Mammy suddenly went deaf, perhaps her subconscious mind just couldn’t bear the noise of babies crying any more’.

The story has been split into a series of short chapters, the majority of which have rather intriguing titles. These range from ‘Being Born’ and ‘God in the Billiard Room’ to ‘The Aunt With the Square Face’ and ‘As if she had no Ears at All’. Rather than leading on from one another, these chapters are a series of vignettes, and an amalgamation of memories of times long past. Through Barbara’s eyes, we enter a world of governesses, boarding schools, the great outdoors, hand-me-down garments, superstitions, maids, servants and rituals of running away from home. The entirety of the book has been historically grounded with a wealth of details. Examples of this include when the girls’ grandmother ‘was a child Queen Victoria saw her riding in the Row’ and the same grandmother undertaking ‘no housework or cooking, all that was left to some little overworked skivvy, who never had an evening off because she was so scared of Jack the Ripper’.

Sisters by a River does not present a commonplace childhood by any means. The narrator wakes as a child to find her parents trying to push her grandmother out of the window – ‘it really was a mercy her hips were so wide and the window rather narrow’. The cruelty of the girls’ father is included at points: ‘We would suddenly hear an angry trumpeting noise and he would grab as many of us as he could and bang our heads together’, and ‘Once when Beatrix was a baby he got so furious because of her crying he threw her down the stairs’ are stand-out examples. The following elements have also been included: the tyrannical wrath of Mary, hitting daytrippers who have found themselves in trouble in the river with shovels instead of rescuing them or calling for help, and burning books and toys which Chloe was particularly fond of. As well as these bad memories and nightmare-like scenes, cheerful elements have been woven in too – for example, playing in the river, and wading through the yearly floodwaters on homemade stilts.

The childish comparisons throughout are just lovely. Barbara tells us the way in which a governess ‘wore a hat of very corse straw, like a giant biscuit’, and how ‘the furniture was made of some shiny black wood with short bow legs, rather like mine’. Comyns captures family relationships incredibly well, particularly the more fractured and unstable ones. Comyns has presented a marvellous slice of family history, allowing the modern reader a glimpse of a world which has altered considerably. Despite its cruelties, it is a difficult book not to be charmed by, and Comyns deserves a place on the bookshelves of each and every reader.