The Girl From Clapham

My parents raised my sister and I with a love of live music – technically, my folks started going to concerts together before they really even started dating (my grandfather gave my dad and his then-girlfriend a ride to the Crosby, Stills, and Nash show that my mom was attending with her best friend – where it all began!), and now they have decades of shared concerts together.

Once we were old enough, they started bringing us along too – the B-52s, Tom Petty, the Wallflowers, and Counting Crows were all early family shows. While we all might have pretty varying musical tastes at this point, one band that we’ve always loved pretty equally is the British band Squeeze. After years of being broken up as a band, they got back together in 2007, which would have been amazing except for one problem – we had already booked a family vacation to the New Jersey shore when they were scheduled to be in Baltimore! What to do?

Well, what my family does is, you drive to a working-class town somewhere in northern New Jersey on your family vacation to see Squeeze. Because live music is what it’s all about, and who knows when they’ll get back together again, and YOU CAN’T LET THESE MOMENTS PASS YOU BY. And thank goodness we didn’t – what a show. The crowd was maniacal – they were starved for Squeeze and sang along to every word. The setlist was amazing. And if Glen Tilbrook’s voice maybe couldn’t reach the very highest notes of I Think I’m Go Go, Chris Difford’s deep bass voice sounded just like it did on their earliest recordings.

“This is all terrific, Lorraine,” you’re saying to yourself. “But what on earth does Squeeze have to do with women’s literature?”

Well, my mother and I have had more than one conversation over the years about the genius of the lyric to Squeeze’s “Up the Junction.” It’s a simple enough story – they meet, fall in love, move in and get pregnant, and then she leaves him after the baby’s born because he turns into a drunk. But it’s brilliant in how simple and heartbreaking it is. And you better believe Squeeze did it at that 2007 show – in fact, it was their second tune right after Take Me I’m Yours, and the crowd went nuts.

We’ve also wondered about the title. Mom surmised that it must be British slang for “up the creek without a paddle,” which was reasonable enough, but I had never heard it used anywhere else, at least not in any of the British books I read growing up.

So the first thing I wondered, of course, when I discovered Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction – was there a connection, or was it a coincidence? I wondered it more than once as I read it, too. In fact, in one of the stories, a drunken group ends up on the Clapham Commons and I immediately started singing to myself: “I never thought it would happen/with me and the girl with Clapham/out on the windy common/That night I ain’t forgotten.” If it were just a coincidence, then it would be a pretty strong one!

I won’t leave you all in suspense. According to Chris Difford, it is not just a coincidence. He “nicked the title” from Nell Dunn’s collection of short stories, but the narrative is his own – the story line of the song is not based on any of the stories in the collection. While there are some similarities in the working-class roots of Difford’s tale, Dunn’s characters certainly seem rougher than Difford’s story. The lovebirds in his song are just that – they’re in love, whereas love doesn’t really enter anyone’s minds in Dunn’s book.

Don’t take that as a critique, just contrasting the song with the book. There are plenty of, er, dissatisfied reviewers on Goodreads who find the book too rough and unvarnished. I imagine that the book was quite a shock when it was released in 1963 – just on the cusp of Beatlemania.

The strength of the book is in Dunn’s ability to hear dialog (and accent) and in her character sketches. Her observation of human nature is quiet but penetrating. The book’s weakness is its strength, which is its brevity. It’s barely 125 pages. The same characters appear again and again in the stories, but they appear as quick caricatures, not detailed, multi-layered oil paintings. You feel you’ve gotten a taste enough to know what the rest of the meal likely tastes like – but you must guess.

I will say, however – I am slightly suspicious of her upper-class background (I have lots of thoughts about upper-class and middle-class writers and their work “immersing” themselves in working class environments – as someone with an actual working-class background, this usually sets my teeth on edge), but I don’t find that it interferes with her writing as much as it would for most writers. I would be interested to read more (and I think I have her first novel, Poor Cow, lying around here somewhere).

For the benefit of those readers who happen to be my mother and would like to know more about Squeeze writing Up the Junction, here’s an article from 2015 where they talk about their Nell Dunn connection, the comparisons to Lennon McCartney, and much more:

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