Thursday, 2 July 2015

NELL DUNN Poor Cow (1967)

Virago Press Limited UK, 1988

There's another side of life, where the husband and wife are very happy. My mate, Jackie, she's thirty something, they have it every night, they've got nothing at all.  They haven't got a home, nothing, they've got four kids, but they're so wrapped up in each other.  When I look at them I laugh, they have their ups and downs but they're so happy.  And they'll tell you themselves, they can still have sex and enjoy it, they don't have to dabble in what it's like with other people.  This is really what I want, a close intimate life and if I leave Tom –– I'm frightened.  I'm frightened of being on my own –– s'posin' I don't find anyone else and ninety-nine per cent of the men I've been with are married and with their wives anyway –– so I'd be the odd one out –– I can't live on me own and Auntie Emm, well she drives you mad, it's no good living with a woman otherwise it would be one room and National Assistance and Jonny in a day nursery.  Drive you up the wall and all she talks about is herself –– if I say I think I'm pregnant she lifts up her jumper and says, 'Well, look at me –– I think I am too' –– at her age, fifty-two.  I think the world of my Auntie Emm but not to live with.  I've got my Jonny and what I feel for my Jonny I could never put into words, but a kid, you want to share a kid, you can't live with a kid alone.

The Novel:  In 1963 a young English writer named Nell Dunn published Up The Junction, a collection of interrelated short stories (some critics described them as sketches) which dealt candidly and unflinchingly with the lives of feisty working class women living in the South London suburb of Battersea.  The book was greeted as a revelation when it first appeared, presenting these rough talking, fiercely independent women exactly as they were with no effort made to sentimentalize, romanticize or sanitize what were their drab, funny, promiscuous and occasionally brutal lives.  The book became a bestseller and went on to win its twenty-seven year old author the 1964 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for Literature.

Dunn followed Up The Junction with Poor Cow, her debut novel published in 1967.  Like its predecessor, Poor Cow was a startling and sometimes arresting piece of work, as blunt as it was compassionate in its depiction of the trials and tribulations of an ordinary working class girl whose dream of settling down into a 'respectable life' is continually thwarted by her upbringing, her environment and her unabashed love of sex.  

The story opens with twenty-one year old Joy walking home from hospital with her week-old baby, 'her maternity dress hitched up with her coat belt' because her husband Tom hasn't bothered to come and pick her up.  Joy wonders how she ended up with a baby –– a boy named Jonny –– and wonders what their future will be like given that Tom's a professional thief who could 'get done' by the police and carted off to gaol at any moment.  But Joy is neither frightened nor depressed at the prospect of suddenly being deprived of her sole means of support.  A survivor and a realist, she sees no point in worrying about might happen until it actually does happen and remains determined, in the meantime, to enjoy as much of her life as she can while she's still young enough to do so.

On Joy's twenty-second birthday Tom comes home and dumps a bag full of cash on their bed –– the proceeds from his latest robbery.  Suddenly they're rich, so they buy a Jaguar and rent a luxury flat in Ruislip where Joy spends her days pushing little Jonny round in his pram and watching her snooty middle-class neighbours go about their business.  Of course, this period of prosperity can't and doesn't last.  Tom soon finds himself arrested, with their newfound wealth soon being gobbled up by lawyers' fees –– an expenditure that ultimately fails to deter the presiding judge from handing him a four year prison sentence.  

Now homeless, Joy moves in with her half-mad Aunty Emm, only to find herself trapped in a social and psychological rut, missing sex and her husband (in that order) and spending most of her time daydreaming about meeting a rich older man who will love her little boy as much as he loves her.  But the man she eventually hooks up with is neither rich, old nor particularly clever.  His name is Dave and he's Tom's former partner in crime, another thief she's happy to share her life with if only to be free of her aunt and get the sex she needs on a regular basis to keep her from becoming, in her words, 'very perverted.'

Pan Books UK, c 1975
Dave is, in many ways, the one true love of Joy's topsy-turvy life.  He promises to look after her and tries to do so to the best of his ability, giving her what she needs sexually and financially and even taking her and Jonny on what proves to be, for all three of them, an idyllic and memorable picnic in the country.  They promise never to abandon each other –– a promise broken when Dave, just like Tom before him, is arrested by the Flying Squad after stealing £100,000 worth of jewellery from the home of an elderly lady.  Because his offence is more serious than Tom's –– robbery with violence –– Dave receives a twelve year sentence for it, a sentence that won't see him eligible to apply for parole for at least a decade.  Although Joy doesn't think she'll be able to stand being apart from him for twelve days let alone twelve years, stand it she does, moving back in with Aunty Emm and writing Dave heartfelt love letters every other day in which she promises to divorce Tom and wait, no matter how long he's inside, so they can be married when he's finally free again.  

In the meantime, needing an income of some kind and something to keep her busy, Joy takes a job as a barmaid at The White Horse, 'a big modern pub with a lot of well-to-do customers.'  She's young and pretty, meaning she soon becomes a favourite of the pub's regulars, earning herself the nickname 'Sunshine' while her fellow barmaid Beryl advises her not to sleep with any of them unless she can be certain of 'getting something out of them' in return for it.  Despite her unshaken love for Dave, whom she continues to write to and visits in prison as often as she can, Joy finds herself becoming irresistibly attracted to a stocky bread delivery driver named Petal who sneaks into her flat each morning to bring her fresh rolls while she's still in bed.

After Petal it's only a matter of time before Joy finds herself sleeping with other men –– first a butcher, then a hairdresser in his sixties who gives her five quid each time she removes her knickers in front of him, then an 'art professor' with a wife and four children who doesn't like to talk much afterwards.  While the sex is interesting, sometimes even satisfying, she's smart enough to realize that it's basically a hollow experience, as meaningless in the long run as she imagines it must be for a full-time (as opposed to a part-time) prostitute.  'You've got to be careful sometimes,' she tells herself after one of these encounters, 'it's as if I'm hanging on all the time –– just clinging on telling meself –– life's all right –– it's a great experience living –– you really are living and then I think, Poor Cow, who are you taking on?  Let's face it, it's just escaping from one misery to another.  Who really enjoys life?  Kids when you get down to it –– kids are the only ones who really get a kick out of being alive.'  Despite her feelings of unhappiness and disconnection, Joy continues to sleep with the men she's come to identify as 'her men' even as she continues to pine for the absent and still sorely missed Dave.  In her heart of hearts she knows that it's Dave she really wants –– a vow she repeats each time she writes to him, along with the promise that she'll wait for him forever if waiting means they can truly be together some day like a 'normal' married couple.

But Dave's parole is still a long way off, so to make ends meet she follows Beryl's example and becomes a photographer's model, earning £2 a hour for posing in the nude for the exclusively male members of a local photography club.  This job and the not unwelcome male attention it gains her begin to change Joy, making her more aware of her beauty and the power of her sexuality.  'Her body developed into a highly sensitive machine; she noticed the colour of leaves and felt her bare thighs touching where she wore no stockings.  She noticed the faint dust on men's bare backs on building sites.  When stripped before the cameras she was a queen.'  Yet she remains unsatisfied, longing for Dave even as she dreams of meeting 'a man of position' who'll give her the sort of steady settled life she wants to start living as much for Jonny's sake as her own.  

It's from Jonny, not from her incarcerated and increasingly depressed lover, that she gains the strength required to keep prostituting herself night after night to men she can barely tolerate the sight of.  'I try to forget there's anything to me –– I listen to his problems, his moans and groans then he gets undressed and I look at his body and smell the smell of his skin and I think suddenly what am I doing here with this horrible old bastard –– why aren't I at home with my little Jonny and his lovely limbs and hair and feet and sweet smell?  Here I am touching up this dirty old man for a couple of quid when my Jonny's at home with his cod-liver oil breath.'

Optimum Classics/Studio Canal DVD, 2008
Things go on this way until Tom, newly released from prison, arrives on her doorstep one morning and asks to see his son.  He also asks Joy, who's technically still his wife, to come and live with him in a flat he's found in Catford, promising to give up crime and 'to never lay a finger' on her if she agrees to the idea of her, himself and Jonny becoming a 'proper' family again.  Believing she has nothing to lose by accepting his offer, Joy moves in with him, redecorating the flat to make it more homelike and, for a time, seriously considering his idea that they should have another child.  She convinces herself that things are all right, that she can stay with Tom and find some sort of contentment with him, but the reality of her situation and the drabness of her surroundings gradually combine to disabuse her of this notion.  Tom finds it hard to adjust to life on the 'outside' and Joy wishes that Dave had been there with her on the morning he showed up on the doorstep, ready to fling him out.  Nor can she stand to have Tom touch her now that the letters from Dave –– her only source of contact with him and her only consolation for being deprived of his body and his company –– have stopped arriving.  'I can't stand it anymore,' she admits to herself one day, 'when he tried to have it this morning I felt quite dizzy –– I screamed at him "Let me go –– let me go you dirty bastard."  I can't abear him to touch me –– it's the four walls, the kitchenette, each day the same, I think I'm going round the bend.'  Unfortunately, the situation deteriorates rather than improves, Joy's disaffection and frustration increasing to the point where she seriously contemplates seducing the local estate agent as a means of escaping what's become a bleak if not hopeless situation –– a plan she sets in motion by paying the agent a visit in his office one afternoon, little Jonny in tow, and openly flirting with him.  

This is, of course, too much for Tom, who accuses her of being a tart and hits her, regretting it almost as soon as he does.  Joy, however, refuses to forgive him and leaves their flat, advising Jonny, who's playing with a neighbour's child at the bottom of the stairs, that he should 'see yer dad if you want anything.'  Arriving home hours later, she finds Tom lying on the settee eating cake and no sign of Jonny anywhere.  Frantic at the thought that her son –– the one legitimately 'good' thing in her life –– might have been abducted, raped and murdered by some psychopath, she rushes out to search for him, unable to stop imagining the worst until she hears him call out 'Mama' and forces her way into a dilapidated building, only to find him sitting in the dark with a black cat nestled in his lap.  'And she thought then that all that really mattered was that the child should be all right and that they should be together.'  And they are together, come hell or high water, Jonny's presence in her life the only thing that gives it any true sense of substance or meaning.

In her introduction to the 1988 Virago edition of Poor Cow, Dunn's friend and fellow novelist Margaret Drabble makes the point that her work 'has a freshness, a firsthand observation, that is very different from its slick commercial copies, from the standardised versions of soap opera and sitcom.'  Drabble goes on to suggest that this offers both Joy and the reader a way to believe in the 'myth of escape and liberation.'  It's Joy's sense of her own freedom, her unwillingness to be or even try to be anything apart from the naïve, thoroughly impractical woman she is, that makes her such an appealing figure and one that can't be written off as simply another 'fool' or 'tragic victim.'  Joy is not a victim.  She's self-aware and also fully cognizant of what her surroundings and her life have done to her and will continue to do to her, no matter if she chooses to become married and 'normal' or chooses to remain single and 'perverted.'  The love she feels for Jonny is genuine and even admirable, as is the love she feels for Dave despite what proves to be her self-defeating willingness to sleep with other men for both the money it can gain her and the physical relief and fleeting sense of comfort it occasionally provides.  While her story is sad –– heartbreakingly so at times –– it's also a funny, gripping and common one in the most positive, non-pejorative sense of the word.  

Dunn's style, which alternates between first-person confessional and detached third-person reportage, is exactly the right one required to capture the subtle nuances of Joy's character, giving you direct access to her thoughts even as it places them in the wider context of what are, for the most part, the unpromising realities of her day-to-day existence.  You like and admire Joy, not because hers is a particularly clever or unique personality, but because she refuses to pretend on any level and remains, despite everything, a warm, human and very courageous woman trying to retain some measure of autonomy in what, strictly speaking, is and will remain –– for her at least –– very much a 'man's world.'

Bloomsbury Publishing first UK edition, 1996
Fortunately, Joy's story doesn't end with Poor Cow.  In July 1996 Dunn published My Silver Shoes, a sequel which sees Joy living on a council estate twenty years later in a house next door to Gladys, her elderly demented mother.  Like its predecessor, My Silver Shoes is an entertaining if sometimes confronting mixture of the comedic and grotesque which successfully dramatizes the problems of children caring for their elderly, mentally unstable parents while struggling to maintain a life of their own.  The book asks many important questions about morality and the issue of personal responsibility and what role, if any, these have to play in what's now become a familiar predicament for carers whether they be poor, rich or somewhere in between.  

NELL DUNN, c 1967
The Writer:  'I never, ever wanted a conventional life and big house,' Nell Dunn stated in a 1996 newspaper interview.  'I always wanted a lot of freedom.'  What makes this desire, hardly an unusual one, so remarkable in her case is that a conventional life and a big house were well within her grasp as the daughter of Sir Philip Gordon Dunn, the Canadian-born Second Baronet of Bathurst, one of whose ancestors had gained worldwide fame as 'the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.'  Dunn's childhood was one of wealth and privilege and, like her elder sister Serena, might easily have led to her bagging herself a Rothschild or someone equally 'suitable' had her heart been set on doing so.  Instead, she married fellow writer Jeremy Sandford in 1957 and, two years later, moved with him from their Chelsea flat to the decidedly unfashionable suburb of Battersea in the South London borough of Wandsworth.

Dunn was born 'Nell Mary Dunn' in London on 9 June 1936, the second daughter of Baronet Dunn and his wife Lady Mary Sybil Saint Clair-Erskine.  She was educated at a convent which she left at the age of fourteen, no doubt expected to follow the same 'debutante-fiancée-society wife' path her sister elected to follow.  But the 1950s were a time of great social upheaval in Britain and Dunn, always a free spirit at heart who found in books a solace for what had often been a troubled childhood despite its ostensible privilege and luxury, never really felt comfortable with her wealth or the exalted social position which accompanied it.  Her marriage to Sandford –– a genuine eccentric who, in later life, became an outspoken advocate for gypsies and the homeless –– came as a welcome opportunity to permanently break away from her family and its, for her, smothering expectations.  

The couple's decision to move to Battersea would prove to be the right one for both of them from a creative point of view.  Working in the local sweet factory, where she wrapped liqueur chocolates for a paltry wage of two shillings and sevenpence an hour, allowed Dunn to meet and mingle with the women whose lives she would write about so tellingly in Up The Junction –– a book that began as a series of four short 'sketches' originally published in a London newspaper.  She and Sandford –– who would briefly find fame himself as the writer of the socially critical 1965 television play (and later film) Cathy Come Home –– remained in Battersea until they chose to separate in 1971.  (They divorced in 1979 after producing three sons together.)  By this time Dunn had published Talking to Women, a collection of interviews, and the critically acclaimed novel Poor Cow which she and director Ken Loach adapted into a popular 1967 film of the same name starring Carol White as Joy and Terence Stamp as Dave.  A film version of Up The Junction, not adapted by Dunn and directed by Peter Collinson, was released in 1968, while 1969 saw the publication of Freddy Gets Married, her only book for children.

Dunn's third novel, Tear His Head Off His Shoulders, appeared in 1974 and was followed two years later by I Want, her first work for the stage.  The 1980s saw her establish herself as one of England's sharpest and most successful dramatists, with her 1981 play Steaming –– about three women of different classes who meet at a Turkish bath where they're able to frankly discuss and compare their lives –– winning the Society of West End Theatre Award for 'Best New Comedy.'  Other plays followed –– including Variety Night (1982), The Little Heroine (1988) and Consequences (1988) –– as did the script for a television film Every Breath You Take (1987) and the novels Grandmothers (1991) and My Silver Shoes (1996).

NELL DUNN and her dog IRIS, 2011
In 2003 Dunn returned to the stage with Cancer Tales, a play inspired by the illness of her long-time lover Dan Oestreicher.  His 2009 death from lung cancer –– he asked to die at home, which proved to be both a blessing and a curse for her –– led to her becoming a patron of Dying In Dignity, a UK organization which campaigns to protect and promote the individual's right to choose the manner, place and time of their death.  Oestreicher's death, long expected and even planned for to a certain degree, did not go smoothly, with all five health professionals who visited him on the day he died failing to make his passing as easy or as dignified as it should have been for himself and his misinformed partner.  Dunn's anger at the way her lover was treated –– the morphine required to ease his suffering wasn't available because it was a Sunday and most chemist shops in the UK close on Sundays –– inspired her to write a new play titled Home Death which she declared soon afterwards would definitely be her last.  'It seems enough,' she told journalist shortly after the play's well-received 2011 premiere.  'There is no great drama about stopping.'

Nell Dunn, who turned seventy-nine in June 2015, still lives in London within walking distance of Richmond Park, the place where the ashes of Dan Oestreicher and their beloved dog Primrose are buried.  

Click HERE to read Is A Dignified Death At Home Too Much To Ask?, a 2011 article from The Guardian about NELL DUNN and her experiences as the partner, carer and enabler of DAN OESTREICHERTo read a 1996 article from The Independent about her long friendship with fellow novelist MARGARET DRABBLE, please click HERE.

The film version of Poor Cow, directed by KEN LOACH and starring CAROL WHITE as Joy and TERENCE STAMP as Dave, was released in 1967.  It was re-released in a fully restored version for the home entertainment market by Optimum Classic/Studio Canal in 2007 and remains widely available as a Region 2 UK/Europe DVD.   
Many books by NELL DUNN –– including Up The Junction (1963), Poor Cow (1967), My Silver Shoes (1996) and the plays Steaming (1981) and Home Death (2011) –– are still in print and readily obtainable via your local library, bookstore or preferred online retailer.

You might also enjoy:
LAURIE GRAHAM The Ten O'Clock Horses (1996)
JACK TREVOR STORY Live Now, Pay Later (1963)

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