‘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.
‘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, ain’t 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?”’
So, attractively, begins ‘Up the Junction’, the book that Nell wrote about the next stage of our lives, a move from Cheyne Walk to a terraced house in North Battersea, at that time one of the poorest parts of London.
She had walked across the bridge over the Thames from fashionable Chelsea and fallen in love with an £800 house in Lavender Road – now long since demolished, replaced by a housing estate.
‘It was the most beautiful place I have ever been to,’ she later wrote.
‘A grapevine grew wild over the outdoor lavatory and the garden was full of sunflowers six-feet high with faces as wide as dinner-plates. At the end of our street were four tall chimneys.’
The exuberant, uninhibited life she found in these tired old streets and under the railway arches enchanted her, and she recaptured it in a series of closely linked sketches which, first appearing in the New Statesman, were funny, witty and bawdy.
‘Sharp, spare, boldly pictorial ...’ the Observer commented; ‘A detail or two are all we need, and all we are given; the abortionist’s gym shoes, and rusty perfume machine ...’
A New Statesman critic wrote, ‘Nell Dunn has been accused of slumming. This is not fair. She has been reworking a national literary tradition, the love affair between the classes, and if her stories sometimes sound like a liberal white living it up in Sophiatown, perhaps that’s not surprising.’
The sketches were later joined together in a book, published by McGibbon and Key and Pan, and very successful.
‘Are yer married?’ one of the boys asks Nell.
‘Course she is,’ her friends reply.
‘”What do yer think that is? Scotch mist?” Ruby points to my wedding ring.
‘Sylvie says, “Bet they’re all married, dirty ginks!”
‘”Like to dance?”
‘Rube moves onto 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 peel off the notes. Bang ‘em down on the counter and drive out – that’s what yer dad does, I bet ...”
‘We were crushed in the toilets. All round girls smeared on pan-stick.
‘”I can’t go with him, he’s too short.”
‘”All the grey glitter I put on me hair come off on his cheek and I hadn’t the heart to tell him.”
‘”I wouldn’t mind goin’ with a married man ‘cept I couldn’t abear him goin’ home and gettin’ into bed with his wife.”
‘”Me hair all right?”
‘”Yeah, lend us yer lacquer.”
‘”Now don’t get pissin’ off and leavin’ me.” Rube pulled at her mauve skirt so it clung to her haunches and stopped short of her round knees.
‘Outside revving bikes were splitting the night.
‘”Where we going?”
‘”Let’s go swimmin’ up the Common.”
‘”We ain’t got no swim-suits with us.”
‘”We’ll swim down one end and you down the other. It’s dark, ain’t it?”
‘”Who do yer think’s going to see yer? The man in the moon?”
‘”Yeah, and what’s to stop yer hands wandering?”
‘”We’ll tie ‘em behind our backs.”
Jeremy Sandford FanClub Archives
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[Jeremy Sandford FanClub]