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Nell Dunn (left) and Kathy Collier (photo by Tina Tranter)

Ways of listening

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Interview | 11 minute read
Why did Nell Dunn, the daughter of an earl, choose to write about working-class lives? She reflects back on her seminal book and the unheard voices she recorded in it

‘It came out of being in a muddle – about what to do with my life,’ Nell Dunn says. ‘I didn’t know what was going on, I didn’t understand what you were meant to do.’

We are sitting on a sofa in Dunn’s house in Fulham, with her dog, Iris, staring inquisitorially up at us, and Dunn, a writer and playwright, is describing the sense of directionless-ness, of stuck-ness, from which her seminal collection of interviews, Talking to Women (1965) emerged.

Dunn wrote the book – a series of intimate conversations with her female friends – in between publishing her first collection of short stories, Up the Junction (1963), and her first novel, Poor Cow (1967) – both of which ended up being adapted for the screen. She was twenty-eight at the time, married with three children. ‘I wanted to know what my friends and other women my age were thinking and believing and doing,’ she recalls.

Talking to Women had been out of print for decades, until the feminist publisher, Silver Press, brought out a new edition this year, bringing Dunn to the attention of a younger generation of readers. ‘It rattles on,’ she says, a little self-mockingly, ‘asking what people think.’ In the book, Dunn speaks to nine women about love, sex, marriage, having-or-not-having children, work, creativity, freedom, depression, how to live. The interviewees were hungry to talk, she recalls: ‘They didn’t take much convincing.’ Some are writers, like Ann Quin (‘Do you feel you have any kind of definite moral code? Like for instance you shouldn’t sleep with married men?’ Dunn asks her), others are artists, such as Pauline Boty (‘Do you ever resent the time you spend looking nice?’). One of the women, Kathy Collier, works in a butter factory (‘Do you think life is very hard?’).

Nell Dunn, facing the camera, and Kathy Collier (Photo by Tina Tranter)

In many ways, Talking to Women is a reflection of its age. There is, occasionally, a startling ignorance around homosexuality (this was pre-Stonewall, after all). ‘Do you see lesbians in Battersea?’ Dunn asks Collier at one point, amazed to hear that she does. And though the oldest of them is only thirty-two, most of the women in the book are already wives and mothers. Anxiety about ‘keeping’ men is a common theme. ‘Men had no responsibility then,’ Dunn explained. ‘They could do what they liked. Women had all the responsibility for looking after the children, looking after the house, finding meals, cooking meals, washing up.’ It was also the era of the pill and ‘free love’ (which the novelist Edna O’Brien, in her chapter, describes sceptically as a ‘sort of so-called freedom’) when Second Wave feminism was cusping. Many of the interviewees show an ambivalence around marriage and motherhood, and when Dunn asks the ‘singular and single’ Quin if she regrets having an abortion, she replies, ‘I didn’t regret it because it was something I’d chosen to do.’

Though some details date it, it is surprising just how relevant the book still is, how it chimes. It reads a bit like a precursor to contemporary, part-memoir, part-something-else books such as Shelia Heti’s Motherhood (2018), in which the narrator tries to work out whether to have children or not, canvassing the opinions of friends and I Ching coins. And it’s interesting that the simple act of sharing experiences with others, questioning, not being sure, feels radical. The exchanges in Talking to Women are at once casual and profound, repetitive and unique, strident and contradictory. As Joanna Biggs, of Silver Press, pinpointed in a piece for the New Yorker, ‘It’s because these portraits are messy that you feel like the women are talking to you.’ Did writing the book help? I ask Dunn. ‘I think it did, actually. I got some genuine contact from other women my age, about their struggle. And it was really good fun to do.’

Spending some time with Dunn, it becomes clear what a good listener she is. I want to tell her things, as well as ask her things. In the end I do both. I can’t help myself. In fact, Dunn has been in a ‘women’s group’, which are made up of her friends, for decades. They regularly get together and talk about what is going on in their lives: relationships, work, emotions. ‘Really, probably, my talent was having an ear,’ she reflects. ‘What interests me is talking to people. I’m immensely curious about people and I like talking to them.’ Her career has been built upon this: talking to others, talking things through, putting talk on the page, the stage, the screen. As Ali Smith writes in her introduction to Talking to Women, ‘Dunn’s life project has been dialogue in action.’ In all of her novels, plays, scripts and works of non-fiction, collaboration and conversation – as much with her subjects as with other writers and film-makers – is key.

Nell Dunn and husband, Jeremy Sandford, with their two sons Roc and Reuben (Photo by John Pratt/Keystone Features/Getty Images)

The granddaughter of an earl, Dunn was born into an unequivocally upper-class life. But in 1959, she and her then husband, the writer Jeremy Sandford, moved from Chelsea to Battersea – which was at the time a largely working-class part of London. Here, famously, she worked for a stint in a local sweet factory. ‘I was living in a cottage, two-up two-down, and I absolutely loved it,’ she enthuses. Both she and Sandford drew creative inspiration from the community around them. Up the Junction is a series of short stories about a group of friends in South London, Rube, Lily and Sylvie. The narrator – based on Dunn herself – is ‘an heiress from Chelsea,’ but the book is mainly made up of dialogue and reads almost like a collective stream-of-consciousness. ‘I wanted to be a writer and I’d written journals, but I hadn’t quite seen how to tie things together. And so I began to write a portrait of Battersea, really. There’s about five years of living in Battersea that’s distilled into Up the Junction.’

Why did she choose to write about the lives of working-class people in works like Up the Junction and Steaming (a 1981 play about women who meet and talk in a public bath threatened with closure)? Why not about people from her own class? Or just about her life? ‘I have written about my background, but not with great success,’ she confesses. ‘And honestly, I think I’m very attracted to working-class language. I just like the expressiveness in the speech. I like the language – it’s very alive. It interested me. I found a lot of happiness in Battersea, because I did find it very alive. There was a lot of good contact. I was searching for closeness and I had no idea why I found it hard to find. But I did find it in Battersea. I felt close to people.’

When talking about Dunn’s work, people often describe it as ‘giving a voice to the voiceless’. But that is not quite right. Dunn’s friends and neighbours have voices – clear ones. And they helped Dunn find hers. ‘I’m sure there’s a very strong part of me in the writing. In Poor Cow [which follows Joy, a single mother who gets involved with her husband’s friend while her husband is in prison] there’s a bit that I’m really very proud of, where Joy says she’s begun to really enjoy the difference between men and how they make love to her. It’s so bold! A very severe man asked me on live television if I thought that I was promoting promiscuity. “Oh I don’t know,” I said. “But people should try different men.” I was quite proud of that because at the time it was quite subversive. So my characters are all part me and part other people – as with most writers, probably. I may be speaking in what people think is a working-class language but I’m saying what I think.’

Battersea Power Station office, retail and residential development (Photo by Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Dunn’s dialogue-rich work lends itself to adaptation, and over the years many of her books and plays have been made into films – Ken Loach’s version of Poor Cow (1967) being the most renowned. She has also written some film scripts herself. Interestingly, the initial inspiration to write Up the Junction came from a television documentary – Dennis Mitchell’s innovative Morning in the Streets (1959) – described at the time as an ‘impression of life and opinion in the back streets of a Northern City in the morning’. The film is narrator-less, with observational scenes mixed with staged ones. Snatches of recorded conversation drift over the visuals. ‘I thought this is the sort of thing I want to write so I wrote to Dennis Mitchell and he said, “I’ll meet you, next Saturday on platform 13 at Clapham Junction.” And so that’s where we met. And we sat on a bench, and he encouraged me, and I never saw him again.’

The reception to Dunn’s debut was mixed. ‘”Is it ever wrong to do what you want to?”‘ asks a character, early on. The young women Dunn writes about are hungry for experience, saying yes to sex, yes to misbehaving, yes to fun. While some found the honest descriptions of sex, female desire and the stark realities of backstreet abortions refreshing, others thought them outrageous. ‘I had a lot of people saying horrible things to me,’ she remembers. ‘They put letters through the letterbox saying, “You’ve made all this horrible disgusting stuff up.” There was quite a strong class division in Battersea, you see, and there was a sort of lower middle-class strata that thought that Up the Junction was quite a wicked book – because I’d made out that Battersea was full of “wicked” people. It was a sort of non-recognition of things as they really were. I was really shocked because I thought it was exactly how things were.’

There was a similar backlash when Loach directed a television adaption of Up the Junction for the BBC’s Wednesday Play slot in 1965 (a few years later he would do the same with Sandford’s Cathy Come Home). Shortly after the drama was broadcast, a record number of 400 viewers wrote in to complain about the bad language and sex. They also complained about not being able to follow what was going on. The film is experimental, energetic and lyrical, with a fragmentary structure and soundtrack that stitches together scraps of pop music, conversations and monologues (some of which contain casual, vicious racism).

Ken Loach (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

On the whole, Dunn very much enjoyed collaborating with Loach and was (mostly) pleased with the outcome. She fondly remembers the cameraman jumping into the pool with his camera to film a scene where the group of friends break into a lido at night (‘we were young, it was exciting’).  Her working method with Loach was a kind of conversation, an exchange of words and images. ‘Ken would choose a scene and ask me to write some dialogue for him. And we’d go to the pub or wherever together, I’d show him where it happened – that’s where the fight happened or whatever. He did all the visuals and I did all the dialogue.’ Carol White – who went on to star in Loach’s Poor Cow and the initial run of Steaming – plays Sylvie. ‘I think she’s got something very delicate and lovely about her,’ Dunn says.

Still, back then, Dunn had some reservations about the film. She found a scene where the women working in a sweet factory all burst into song ‘a little bit pretty-pretty.’ And there’s a documentary section in the middle where a doctor talks about how many women are dying in Britain after having backstreet abortions, which she found heavy-handed. ‘That was before the law was changed and Tony Garnett [the producer, whose mother tragically died following an illegal abortion] explained it to me, but you lose being part of the drama, it takes you out of it.’ It’s a common enough fate of working-class characters in films, or indeed any kind of art: someone usually wants to draw a lesson from you.

Dunn is currently working on a book about her friendship with a woman she describes as her ‘muse’. She will not name this friend, who would like to remain private, but she will say that the friend was both the inspiration for Joy in Poor Cow and My Silver Shoes (1996) and also for Josie in Steaming. ‘She’s an extraordinary person,’ Dunn says.

The pair has been in dialogue for decades – and their correspondence will be the backbone of the new book. ‘We have an incredibly close relationship. And people can’t quite understand it, you know, because she’s totally working class. Every now and again she says, “I wish I’d had a proper education”. Her spelling is worse than mine and mine is very bad. But I don’t think she particularly feels sorry for herself. She’s had an exciting life, and a full life. She’s worked all her life – often cleaning. But she has her life, nobody has told her what to do. I think this feels very important to her. And to me. I wasn’t told what to do either.’