The Junction was the area around Clapham Junction railway station in Battersea, south-west London. When Nell Dunn went up there in 1959 she was the (briefly) convent-educated daughter of a baronet who left her privileged background to experience a different way of life in a working-class community.
She loved the energy she found up The Junction, the vitality, the lack of pretension. Nell Dunn celebrated the people and the way of life in a series of short articles which were first published in the New Statesman and then included in the collection which was published in 1963 under the title Up The Junction.
The story is told through a series of vignettes and snatches of dialogue and monologue. The prose style is spare and deliberately understated. There is no narrative voice as such. We are not shown what to think or how to react.
The writer does not judge, so the reader cannot judge either. However, the book was criticised for its subject matter, which some people thought was sordid, disgusting and degrading to the women it depicted.
We are drawn into the lives of the women, young and old, who work in the sweet factory. Their lives are hard, money is short, but their exuberance and lust for living jumps off the page. In particular we follow Sylvie and Ruby, who befriend Lily and guide her through the intricacies of life up the Junction.
A story of survival
All the women are driven by the need to survive. They satisfy their desire for nice things by buying furniture and clothes on instalment plans – ‘Pay-As-You-Wear’. Sylvie works a scam so she doesn’t pay anything after the first payment. They hide from the ‘Tally Man’ when he calls to collect the money.
- Dave’s mum pawns all the furniture.
- May runs cheap meat pies under the tap to make them swell up.
- You hang on to an unfaithful husband because the alternative means going on National Assistance and starving.
A bit of the other
They are also driven by sex, one of the factors which caused such a stir when the book was first published. The women claim their right to a sex life and speak about it freely and without embarrassment in realistic terms.
The novel is studded with reference to drawers, sore lips, funny tastes in your mouth, a bit of the other.
The price you paid for sexual freedom was the constant possibility of getting up the spout, having a bun in the oven. The descriptions of how two unwanted pregnancies are dealt with are harrowing in their matter-of-fact observations and detail.
In some ways, the women are seen to be at the mercy of men. Double standards prevail alongside puritanical views. Lily’s boyfriend Dave says he doesn’t love his wife because she had been with another boy when she was sixteen. Ruby talks about a friend who was made to get into a man’s truck and not allowed out of it until she gave in.
Sylvie says how her previous husband Ted kept tabs on her, timing her when she went round the corner for a quarter of tea or to put a bet on for her dad.
On the other hand, Dunn tells us that women ruled the roost, and that sometimes a man had to take the woman’s name on marriage in order to fit in with the family.
The women in the novel are free and independent, strong women with spirit. They drink and fight. They say what they think. There are plenty of jobs to be had and plenty of men to be had. They don’t do heartbreak and they don’t try to please. Ted doesn’t manage to keep Sylvie stuck to the telly – she meets another bloke in his lorry on the nights Ted goes to the dogs.
The factory scenes are as realistic as those in ‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning’. Dunn captures the noisy background music, the grime and the filth, enough to turn you off factory-made sweets forever, the damp and the cold.
The women’s conversation is earthy and salty, if anything rather toned down from real life (you know who you are, ladies of the Ronson Factory circa 1970).
One of the most powerful chapters shows the casual cruelty, unusual in the novel, with which the hunch-backed, less than bright Sheila, pregnant by one of the men who used to take her upstairs in the caff, is made to dance and look ridiculous.
TV and film versions
In 1965, Ken Loach directed an adaptation of it for The Wednesday Play on BBC. Loach’s distinctive style, part montage, part documentary, overlapping dialogue, captures the book’s tone and atmosphere perfectly. The 1968 film is a more sanitised version.
Up The Junction is often categorised with other works of the 1960s which explore working class lives. The trouble with descriptions such as ‘angry young men’ and ‘kitchen sink drama” is they tend to miss the subtleties and variations within the category. Joe Lampton, for example, would have been away from the junction as fast as his new brogues could carry him.
And hats off to Nell Dunn, whose novel is celebrated 40 years on as a Virago Modern Classic, and who continues to do strong, thought-provoking, socially aware work in theatre and other media.