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Review by Annabel

There is a particular sub-genre of memoir that almost goes into biography but fundamentally remains a memoir. I’m talking about memoirs of friendships like Tracey Thorn’s latest book, My Rock ‘n’ Roll Friend, the story of her friendship with Lindy Morrison, drummer of the Go-Betweens. It’s on my shelf to read very soon, but first I read Nell Dunn’s The Muse, a memoir of her friendship with Josie, Dunn’s friend and inspiration for much of Dunn’s work.

Dunn immortalised her friend Josie in two novels and a play. 1967’s Poor Cow introduced us to the earthy, lusty, Joy who more than anything else just wants to love and be loved. It was filmed with Carol White (Cathy Come Home) as Joy, and Terence Stamp as Dave, directed by Ken Loach. In 1996, Dunn published a sequel to Poor Cow set thirty years later in My Silver Shoes, which sees Joy with a son, Jonny, in the Army, a new man, and living next door to her ageing mother. In between came Dunn’s play Steaming, set in a women’s Turkish baths which premiered at the Royal Court in 1981 with Georgina Hale as Josie.

I very much enjoyed the film of Poor Cow and reading My Silver Shoes alongside The Muse to get a fuller picture. There is no need for such familiarity to enjoy The Muse, but Dunn’s affectionate portrait of her friend and their exploits together will make you want to read her fictionalised counterpart – I suggest you start with Poor Cow

That Dunn, who has upper-class origins, should end up living and working alongside working class women in Battersea as the 1950s gave way to the 1960s is perhaps surprising. But she had an unconventional upbringing and was encouraged to be unique by her father.

After a brief introduction, Dunn writes about the first time she meets Josie – it was early in the morning after Princess Margaret’s wedding. Nell was on the back of Josie’s brothers Lambretta.

And there she was!

Her dainty feet with small toes and nails painted bright red stuck out from fluffy pink slippers. It was chilly and she wrapped her arms around her chest to keep warm.

She reminded me of my mother, who had gone to San Francisco. She too was dainty (and wild).

Somehow Josie and I fell in with each other and saw each other most weeks. When I was with her I was a small child, hanging on every word, entranced and enchanted.

Dunn writes in short chapters, each a vignette of her life with Josie and her friends, including Olive, a prostitute, with whom Josie was very close, and Josie’s mother Sissy. The vignettes are varied in style. Some are straight memoir; others recount conversations Dunn had written down which were often included almost verbatim in her books – Josie almost writes herself as Joy. There are diary entries and photos too.

When Josie runs away to Australia in the late 1970s with a South African called Bill, yet another crook in her life, she and Nell have to communicate by letter and phone, running up huge bills. Nell kept Josie’s letters and includes some of them in the book, exactly as written, with their endearing spelling mistakes; Josie’s sign offs are always touching, urging Nell to look after herself. Snippets from their phone conversations are always rueful, the two women missing each other and trying to sort out Josie’s love life (her husband Ray still wants her back, and she’s torn, despite knowing that with Ray she’s a ‘skivvy’.)

The pair stay in touch with Olive too, now very much in love with a vicar in Sussex. Nell is go-between forwarding their letters.

Scattered amongst the letters, Dunn writes about some of the holidays they had taken together. I loved this quote from when they went to Rome and visited the British Cemetery:

We wandered among the tombs and sat in the sun watching the wild cats chasing each other around the pyramid. I told Josie about Keats and Shelley (thereafter known as ‘Your poets’).

Eventually, Josie’s adventure with Bill comes to an end and she comes back to London. Not to Ray for long though, she sees sense and moves in with her mother Sissy. Dunn is busy with her play Steaming, eventually getting it staged with Josie and her partner Dan sitting beside her on the opening night. You can sense Dunn’s pride that her best mate can be there.

But Josie is irrepressible and runs away again from her boring life with mum in London to Spain, where she meets Tony. Wherever she may be, the two women’s friendship never fades. The Muse is a truly apt title, for as Dunn realises, Josie loves having an audience and Dunn loves watching her, but there’s much more to this enduring friendship of course.

Dunn’s prose is simple and direct, very much matching the vignette style of this short memoir. The photos are perfect accompaniments, be they box brownie type or photo booth fun, they all show women having fun and taking charge. Friendships like that of Josie and Nell don’t happen often and this book is charming and full of high spirits celebrating their sisterhood over the decades.

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Annabel is Shiny Co-founder and one of the editors, and tends to remember the 1970s with rose-tinted glasses!

Nell Dunn, The Muse (Coronet, 2021). 978-1529327953, 152pp., paperback.

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