Interviews in the 1960s: Nell Dunn’s “Talking to Women”

Ah, the experimental ‘60s!   Even if you weren’t alive then, you may be nostalgic for Twiggy, Woodstock, peace marches, communes, Procul Harum, Jules and Jim, and Margaret Drabble’s early novels.

In London I recently came across a copy of Nell Dunn’s Talking to Women, a fascinating if decidedly odd book first published in 1965 and reissued in 2018 by Silver Press.  Dunn is best-known for Up the Junction, a collection of short stories that won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize, and Poor Cow, a novel about a working-class woman in London struggling to get by while her husband is in prison.  Both books were made into films.

Carol White and Terence Stamp starring in the film version of “Poor Cow”

Talking to Women is a different kind of vintage ‘60s book.  It is a collection of interviews Dunn conducted in 1964 with nine of her friends of different backgrounds.  They are writers, factory workers, housewives, artists, theater costume designers, and actresses.  They chat about sex, monogamy, motherhood, identity, work, and other intimate subjects.  

Nell Dunn with her friend Kathy Collier, who is interviewed in this book.

Each interview is headed by the first name of the interviewee and a brief description of her job, marital status, and, if applicable, number of children.  Curious readers will look in the back of the book to find the women’s last names and read their short bios . Not surprisingly, Edna, who turns out to be the writer  Edna O’Brien, was one of the most articulate of the interviewees.

In the preface, Dunn explains the concept:  “If these girls have anything in common it is a belief in personal fulfillment—that a woman’s life should not solely be the struggle to make men happy but more than that a progress towards’ the development of one’s own body and soul.”

The interviews are very colloquial, obviously transcribed just as they spoke, often in run-on sentences.  To be honest, I could not identify at all with the first interviewee, Pauline Doty, a gorgeous blonde pop artist and actress who tragically died in 1966.

Dunn’s first question to Pauline is about fame and anonymity.  She wonders if Pauline ever wishes  to return to the days before she became famous.

PAULINE:  Well, no, because I never expect people to know who I am.  Except there has been a slight change lately when I’ve been in the company of people who are well known and they never know who I am, I mean, if someone knows about you, someone’s heard about you and you’re slightly famous, you know, then you’re worth talking to, and if you’re not, then you’re not, sort of thing and I sit there completely quiet and think, ‘Well, I’ve done something too.’

 Pauline is brave and honest, but I had trouble relating to her.  Perhaps she is less articulate than the others–does this have something to do with being an artist?

But I was very interested in most of the interviews.  Edna is the writer Edna O’Brien, and is intense on the subjects of writing, motherhood, neurosis, and sex.  Kathy, who works in a butter factory, says she thinks the most important thing is money.  She had a baby  at 14, doesn’t mind working, and at 26 lives with her mum and her 10-year-old son.   Kathy is tolerant of all life-styles, including  homosexuality (which was then illegal).  Frances talks more abstractly about free love and the economics of fidelity.  Emma, a housewife, is very funny and natural, and for that reason is my favorite. 

NELL:  And I think the only way to keep a man is by being really nice, making a nice home.

EMMA:  And you should actually knit.  How can a man be unfaithful to you in your hand-knitted sweater?

In many ways, these interviews remind me of the intense conversations I had with close friends in my twenties.  We talked about our attitudes toward sex and work.  Talking with Women seems very modern, if not entirely feminist, and the openness of the dialogues is unique–part Cosmopolitan, part anthropology.

I did laugh when these young women worry about losing their looks and  being washed-up at 40.  But it is true that when I was in my twenties I could barely imagine turning 30, let alone 40.  

A good read!

Surveyors, Not Gentlemen: Curing the Cold with Comfort Books

How can you have a “meltdown” when it’s turning cold? It’s an oxymoron. Nonetheless, I had one.  I slept for a week–couldn’t keep my eyes open–and then suffered an outbreak of a respiratory virus, which lasted only a day.  Meanwhile, the house became shockingly drab and dusty.  And so I got up and scrubbed, polished, washed, decluttered, and realized we must stop reading, because we leave books everywhere.

That cannot be done, though.

As you can imagine, comfort reading helped me recover from the virus, i.e., common cold.  I have enjoyed rereading Pamela Dean’s  Tam Lin, a retelling of the Tam Lin ballad, set at a small college in Minnesota.

I always chortle over my favorite scenes.  The heroine, Janet, an English major, has been warned about the intimidating Professor Evans, but signs up for “Introduction to Literature”anyway.  On the first day he says the  class used to be called “Survey of English Literature,” and he mistrusts the name change.

“We shall be surveyors, not gentlemen.” He considered their faces one by one, until Janet could hardly bear to sit still.  “Not ladies and gentlemen,” he said, finally, and a little grimly.  The class was very quiet.  “Surveyors in the more technical sense,” said Evans.  “To survey may be to look out over a landscape from a height; or it may mean to tramp around in the mud with heavy, fragile, cantankerous instruments.  Some of my colleagues favor the view from a height; I myself feel that to consider the twentieth century a height of any sort, except that of folly, is in fact foolish.  So we will wander in the mud.  I think that when you come home again you’ll find that the mud has been on the slopes of the mountain.  Your instruments you’ll acquire on the way.”

By all means, let us be surveyors, not gentlemen!

“Autumn Daybreak” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

This poem by Edna St. Vincent Millay exactly describes my feelings about autumn.

“Autumn Daybreak” by Edna St. Vincent Millay

Cold wind of autumn, blowing loud
At dawn, a fortnight overdue,
Jostling the doors, and tearing through
My bedroom to rejoin the cloud,
I know—for I can hear the hiss
And scrape of leaves along the floor—
How may boughs, lashed bare by this,
Will rake the cluttered sky once more.
Tardy, and somewhat south of east,
The sun will rise at length, made known
More by the meagre light increased
Than by a disk in splendour shown;
When, having but to turn my head,
Through the stripped maple I shall see,
Bleak and remembered, patched with red,
The hill all summer hid from me.

Who’s in Trouble on the Internet?

On an “electronics-free” vacation—and I find it sad that I use a phrase like “electronics-free”— life was calmer. I found myself staring happily at a plane tree.  I also read poetry.  

Why don’t I do this all the time?

On my return, I decided not to bother with the internet.  But soon I was checking my email.  And then I read the news.  And then I learned about the latest celebrity scandal.

Now by celebrity scandal, I do not mean scandal.  It is usually something quite ordinary.  For a couple of years, it was the angst of delicate adult women who were apparently raised in caves, or they would not have been traumatized when a famous man touched their butt in a bar (possibly 50 years ago).  More scandalously, Roseanne Barr was fired from her own TV show for making an offensive joke about a black woman.   I am sure it was offensive, but I note that her career depends on offensive jokes about everybody.  And then there was the Marie Kondo scandal: when the famous declutterer suggested that her clients should weed some of their books, people on Twitter went crazy.

And now there’s the Jonathan Franzen scandal.  In an essay in The New Yorker, “What If We Stopped Pretending?”,  he said that climate change cannot be reversed and is causing an apocalypse.  He writes,

If you care about the planet, and about the people and animals who live on it, there are two ways to think about this. You can keep on hoping that catastrophe is preventable, and feel ever more frustrated or enraged by the world’s inaction. Or you can accept that disaster is coming, and begin to rethink what it means to have hope.

And people are furious at his belief in the climate change apocalypse.

I rarely agree with Jonathan Franzen, but what he says has been said before.  Surely nobody is shocked at this point at the idea of an apocalypse. And he is not the first person to mention that Earth is going, going, gone.  Barbara Kingsolver said in an interview that she believed she was seeing the end of the world.    And nobody, to my knowledge, got angry at Kingsolver–everybody likes Kingsolver.

Franzen also attacks the Democrats’ Green New Deal and claims green energy will not make a difference.  He is wrong.  It can make an enormous difference — it can slow down the apocalypse, if not prevent it.  

And though it is hard to trust any politicians, they may follow through, because even the corporations want green energy now.  It is cheaper than fossil fuel. 

Things couldn’t be worse, but Franzen isn’t to blame.

Hope for the best, expect the worst.  

The Travel-Pajamas Backlash and Other Travel Tips

Are you fretting over the difficulties of international travel? Longing for advice from a cosmopolitan traveler?  Take it from a tourist:  it’s absurdly easy.   Half of it is showing up; the rest is a willingness to look ridiculous.

HOW TO BE SUPER-COOL IN AUTOMATED AIRPORTS.  Where have all the people gone? In the last few years, everything has become automated. Now you check your own luggage and scan your own passport. But don’t panic.  If you have difficulty with tech, they wave you through a special line where you interact with humans.  (That, in my opinion, is super-cool.)  You soon learn by osmosis to do the tech stuff.  You’re proud of your unpaid airport-processing skills, but wonder what happened to the workers.

TOO MUCH CANNOT BE SAID ABOUT WHAT TO WEAR ON PLANES.  That’s because you love travel fashion “do’s” and “don’t’s.” You pore over the charming articles in magazines, but  you probably won’t wear the darling $500 pajama-style outfits recommended (possibly facetiously) by Vogue  or the $450 leggings in Travel and Leisure which look exactly like all other leggings—one only hopes they have superpowers.   

FASHION “DON’T’S” CAUSE PANIC ATTACKS.   How do the fashion experts know  the “don’ts” in your wardrobe?  Actually, you just learned they are “don’t’s.”   But do not heed the columnist who insists that jeans are worn only by the ugly American. Relax. People of all different nationalities wear jeans on planes.  All casual clothes are appropriate for airports, in case you find yourself jogging across a terminal late for a flight because you were frisked during a random security check.   Note:  it will be the last gate.

HOW TO PLAN YOUR ITINERARY.  What you do depends on who you are.  You do not have to follow an itinerary in a guidebook.  My advice: Make a list of 20 things you want see.  If you check off all the items (which is unlikely), make another list.  There are so many must-sees I hope never to see.  I will never ride the Eye in London, a giant ferris wheel from which you can see the whole city (or something). It would make me sick.  Nor do I feel the urge to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  If you love dizzying heights, you’ll want to do all these things and possibly some rappelling.  

And that’s why our itineraries are so different.

Politics and the Threat of Reading in Doris Lessing’s “The Sweetest Dream”

In Doris Lessing’s The Sweetest Dream, one of her neglected later novels, she reconstructs the political themes of her two great 1960s experimental novels, The Golden Notebook and The Four-Gated City.  She sketches the hypocrisy of the post-war Communist party in Britain, recalls the very real terror of the atomic bomb, and explores the alternative cultures of hippies and dropouts. 

But The Sweetest Dream is straightforward and realistic—there are no flights into science fiction, and any portraits of mental illness are clinical rather than empathetic.  This solid book is more accessible than her masterpieces, and it is a page-turner.  It might be a good place to start reading Lessing.

Lessing writes a note at the beginning of the book explaining that she never wrote the third volume of her autobiography because she did not want to hurt people.  She offers this novel in its place. And though she claims the characters are not based on any people, her readers will recognize recurring themes and characters from her canon.  

The Sweetest Dream begins in  the 1960s and takes us through the ‘90s.  It is a bookish novel, alluding not only to Lessing’s earlier novels, but to the role of reading in the characters’ lives. It focuses on the Lennoxes, an extended family which expands to include the children of the ex-wives of Comrade Johnny Lennox, whom his mother Julia calls “an imbecile.” 

The Lennoxes live in a large house in London, a house where people don’t particularly like each other. It is managed by Frances, an actress and journalist, the first of Johnny’s ex-wives, and is  owned by Johnny’s mother, Julia, a German aristocrat who came to England after World War I.  Frances and Julia  dislike each other but tolerate each other for the sake of Frances’s two teenage sons, who need a stable home.  Andrew and Colin have been traumatized by the irresponsibility of their father, “Comrade” Johnny, a Communist superstar who left them years ago and has since ruined the lives of other vulnerable women.  

And though the house is not meant to be a rooming house, Frances is too kind to turn people in need away. Partly out of guilt toward her sons, she allows their friends to “crash” on weekends.  Soon some of the “waifs” are living there.

The most problematic of the “waifs” is Rose, a furious girl whom no one likes, who moves into the basement flat and refuses to leave.  Her hatred of the Lennoxes, especially Frances, poisons the atmosphere.  Years later, when Rose joins the Communist party, Rose jeers at the elderly Julia as she struggles through a crowd at an anti-war rally.  When Julia faints on the curb, trying to call a taxi,  Rose yells to the crowd that “Ma Lennox” is drunk, and the crowd laughs.  Rose does get a taxi for the old woman, but continues her campaign to discredit the family.

But what I’m really interested in is the role of books in Rose’s burgeoning hatred and resentment of the Lennoxes.

Since Rose had first come into this house she had been possessed by a quiet fury that these people could call it theirs, as of a right.  The great house, its furnishings, like something out of a film, all that money…but all that was only the foundation for  a deeper anguish, a bitter burning that never left them.  It was their ease with it all, what they took for granted, what they knew.  Never had she mentioned a book—and she had a period of testing them out with books no sane person could have heard of—that they hadn’t read, or hadn’t heard of.  She would stand in that sitting-room, with two walls all books from ceiling to floor, and know that they had read them.  “Frances,” she challenged, being found there, hands on hips, glaring at the books, “have you actually read all these books?”  “Well, yes, I believe I have.”  “When did you? Did you have books in your house when you were growing up?”  “Yes, we had the classics. I think everyone did in those days.”  “Everybody, everybody!  Who’s everybody?”  “The middle classes,” said Frances, determined not to be bullied.  “And a good proportion of the working class as well.”

This goes on for pages.  A young African boy  is also intimidated by the books, but, unlike Rose, he is awed and thrilled to read them. 

Books so often are the center of debate, aren’t they?  Especially in this day and age, when the Left and the Right both “censor” books by discrediting the writers’ politics or personal lives. This is a very strange time, but maybe we’ll forget all about it in ten years.

I wonder what Lessing would have thought.

Dorothy Molloy’s “Eternity Ring”

I am reading The Poems of Dorothy Molloy. Last week I ducked into a bookshop between rain showers and found  this by serendipity.  I had never heard of Molloy, an Irish poet whose first collection of poetry, Hare Soup, was published posthumously in 2004.  Molloy’s poems are spiky, witty, disturbing, and unexpected, blitzing conventional ideas about domesticity and women’s lives.

Some of the poems are quite funny and I thought I’d share this one.

Eternity Ring

  “I can’t get this blasted thing off:
the ring set with stones that eats into

my flesh. I’ve tried fretsaws and slashers
and pneumatic drills; Fatima,

butter and soap. Lard.
I rode a tank over my knuckles,

I dropped a bomb onto my hand.
The ring is still grand.”

This made me laugh. I took my own ring off to do the dishes one day and it has been in a china jar ever since.  Hands shrink, hands swell.   Nobody tells you.  Except Dorothy Molloy.