A 1960s classic of British working-class life.
In 1959, a young Nell Dunn moved to the working-class district of Battersea and took a job in a local sweet factory. Although not of the proletariat herself, she soon made friends and became emotionally attached to the area. Her debut collection of short stories, Up The Junction, is a series of sketches of friends, characters and people she knew.
Three women form the book's core – Lily, the narrator, and her friends Rube and Sylvie. They appear in all the stories, giving Up The Junction a sense of cohesion and continuity, somewhere between a short novel and a series of connected vignettes. The stories cover a range of hardscrabble situations: backyard abortions, court appearances for minor crimes, fast young men involved in motorbike accidents, nights out at the pub, prison visits and chancey, usually loveless sex. The girls experience misfortune and come off second best in their sexual encounters, but remain philosophical, enduring dodgy medical procedures and ill treatment from lovers with equanimity and humour.
What makes these stories stand out is the way Dunn captures gritty street dialogue without moralising. Dunn sets down on the page coarse, racist and sexist comments that would otherwise beg for a mitigating commentary, but refuses to judge. She lays her characters starkly before the reader and insists they be taken as they are. We are not to consider ourselves above or below them. They just are.
Up the Junction remains a fascinating document of the times and a piece of exceptionally controlled writing. Dunn stands back coolly and doesn't allow her emotions to get in the way of capturing a true, dignified portrait of a particular milieu she came to know intimately.
Up The Junction, by Nell Dunn. Published by Virago Classics. $21.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books