The London of Nell Dunn and Up The Junction

The London of Nell Dunn and Up The Junction

Nell Dunn was a “posh bird” from Chelsea, a knight’s daughter and the maternal granddaughter of the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo. In 1959, she moved south of the river to what was then run down, working-class Battersea and wrote a series of short stories about her new life there. They were published in 1963 under the title Up The Junction. Here’s how the first story begins:

“We stand, the three of us, me, Sylvie and Rube, pressed up against the saloon door, brown ales clutched in our hands. Rube, neck stiff so as not to shake her beehive, stares sultrily round the packed pub. Sylvie eyes the boy hunched over the mike and shifts her gaze down to her breasts snug in her new pink jumper. ‘Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!’ he screams. Three blokes beckon us over to their table.

‘Fancy ’em?’

Rube doubles up with laughter. ‘Come on, then. They can buy us some beer.’

‘Hey, look out, yer steppin’ on me winkle!’

Dignified, the three of us squeeze between tables and sit ourselves, knees tight together, daintily on the chairs.

‘Three browns, please,’ says Sylvie before we’ve been asked.

‘I’ve seen you in here before, aint I?’ A boy leans luxuriously against the leather jacket slung over the back of his chair.

‘Might ‘ave done.’

‘You come from Battersea, don’t yer?’

‘Yeah, me and Sylvie do. She don’t though. She’s an heiress from Chelsea.’

‘Really? You really an heiress?’ Jimmy Dean moves his chair closer to mine, sliding his arm along the back.

‘Are yer married?’

‘Course she is. What do yet think that is? Scotch mist?’ Rube points to my wedding ring.

‘Sylvie says, ‘Bet they’re all married, dirty ginks!’

‘Like to dance?’

Rube moves on to the floor. She hunches up her shoulders round her ears, sticks out her lower lip and swings in time to the shattering music.

‘What’s it like, havin’ a ton of money?’

‘You can’t buy love.’

‘No, but you can buy a bit of the other.’ Sylvie chokes, spewing out brown ale.

‘I’d get a milk-white electric guitar.’

‘Yeah and a milk-white Cadillac convertible – walk in the shop and feel off the notes. Bang ’em down on the counter and drive out – that’s what yer dad does, I bet…’

Up The Junction won both plaudits and disapproval for its spare but vivid social realism. Dunn was accused by some of slumming, but New Statesman, which published one of the stories before the book came out, defended her, saying she was “reworking a national literary tradition, the love affair between the classes”.

Ken Loach was an admirer. He and Dunn adapted the book for a BBC Wednesday Play, which Loach directed. Sylvie was played by Carol White, who became famous the following year as the protagonist of Cathy Come Home, the epochal TV drama about homelessness, also directed by Loach, and written by Dunn’s then spouse, Jeremy Sandford. In 1967, White starred in another Loach-directed adaption of a Dunn book, Poor Cow, this time turned into a feature film.

Here’s the Wednesday Play version of Up The Junction. It’s an hour long.

Three years later, in 1968, a film version came out, starring Suzy Kendall as Dunn, along with Maureen Lipman (Sylvie), Adrienne Posta (Rube) and Dennis Waterman. Here’s a classic class-and-culture clash clip.

Nell Dunn’s next big success came in 1981, with the play Steaming, which later become a movie too. If you don’t own a copy of Up The Junction, you really ought to. It is, as a 2013 Virago reprint puts it, a classic of 1960s London Life.

Categories: Culture

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *