“You make your own culture” — an interview with Adelle Stripe

Adelle Stripe’s debut novel Black Teeth and Brilliant Smile is a piece of kitchen sink noir inspired by the life and work of playwright Andrea Dunbar. Best known for her play Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Dunbar was an outsider in the world of theatre; born on a Bradford estate, and with very little formal training, she came to the attention of the Royal Court Theatre’s producers through workers at the Women’s Aid charity. Her work, which drew on her experiences of life in the Buttershaw estate,  was tender, comic and subversive, while her private life was considered scandalous by the press.

In the tradition of authors such as Gordon Burn, Stripe’s novel incorporates real and fictional characters to create a portrait of great emotional depth. Here, she talks to Minor Literature[s] about her novel, and the contemporary relevance of Dunbar’s story.

A founder member of The Brutalist literary movement, alongside authors Tony O’Neill and Benjamin Myers, Stripe has previously published four collections of poetry, and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies.

ML: What drew you to Andrea Dunbar, as the subject for your first novel?

I recall watching a documentary about her in the late 1980s on YTV, which I presume was The Great North Show: In Praise of Bad Girls. I was a fan of hers as a teenager, and had aspirations to become a playwright. My first play was a navel-gazing account of life in a small northern town, inspired by Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and Rita, Sue and Bob Too. It was crap. Around the age of 15 I had a phone conversation with Jude Kelly, who was the head of West Yorkshire Playhouse. A customer of my mother’s knew someone who knew her. She took the time to call me and encouraged me to write, but also advised that I tried to study English or Drama at university. At that point I didn’t know anyone who had been to university, and had no idea how I might get there. I grew up in a house without books, so the thought of academia was terrifying. Dunbar and Delaney were guiding lights, so I had a go at writing and fell flat on my face. After that, I became a window dresser and confined my ambitions to the dustbin. It wasn’t until I watched Clio Barnard’s film (The Arbor) in 2010 that I began to think about Dunbar again. I started reading up about her and realised that there wasn’t a book about her life, I wanted to read one, so I wrote it myself.

ML: Andrea Dunbar’s story feels very relevant at the moment, as austerity policies restrict working class access to culture, libraries being a notable example. It’s clear that she faced many barriers to participation in the arts, both economic and cultural – since the Eighties, do you feel as though these barriers have been lifted in any way, and if not, what could be done to help?

Even with the best intentions (such as increased funding and participation programmes) there will always be a barrier for working class people, one that is invisible and rooted in the domination of arts and culture by the middle-classes. There’s the assumption that theatre, ballet, opera houses and art galleries are not spaces for the working-class. They are inhibiting, they have ‘rules’ and social codes. It goes back to Bourdieu, Lynsey Hanley describes it as the wall in the head. If you grow up an estate, you are often judged by people who don’t live there – looked down upon. Therefore, you make your own culture. Northern working-class people already have their own culture in many ways, but the ‘high arts’ are out of reach. Dunbar wrote her first play without ever having stepped foot in a theatre. She had a good teacher, Tony Priestley, at Buttershaw Upper School, who encouraged her, and she wrote The Arbor for her CSE in Drama and achieved an A grade. She wrote about what she knew, what had happened in her everyday life, and the dialogue reflected the speech of her family and friends. The school library provided her with a copy of Murder in the Red Barn and a pile of Stephen King books. These were the starting points for her. How to tell a story and lay it out.

The role of libraries and her local school were intrinsic in building her confidence in the first place. It’s essential that working-class people have access to education and libraries, without it we are sunk. If you grow up in a house without books, then it’s a lifeline. We must protect them.

ML: Although Dunbar got her break through a Royal Court programme for young writers, as a working class northern woman, she still stands out enormously in the largely middle class theatre world. Do you feel like there’s still an expectation for writers from other backgrounds to conform, or face being outsiders?

The Royal Court (under the stewardship of Max Stafford-Clark) nurtured writers such as Jim Cartwright, Caryl Churchill, and Hanif Kureishi in the same period as Dunbar. Max did an excellent job with her first two plays, and played a key role in her development. Despite the huge disparity in their upbringing and social class I’d like to think that the political grounding of the Court always ensured that working-class writers would have a voice. Oscar Lewenstein (the previous director of the Court) was a committed socialist and had worked with writers such as Joe Orton, Shelagh Delaney and Keith Waterhouse in the 1960s. There was a social realism tradition there, so in many ways Dunbar fitted into that. She didn’t have to conform as there was such a great respect for the writer. Liane Aukin initially discovered her through her work with young writers at the theatre, she told me in 2014 that Dunbar was ‘like a gift from heaven’ for the Court at that time as it fitted into their political leanings. Her raw and gritty representation of council estate life (during the winter of discontent) was like catnip.

ML: Building on this, do you find the North-South divide remains strong in the Arts? And if so, what can be done to tackle it?

There is a creative literary scene in the North, most of us can’t afford to live in London, but up here we can eat, work part-time and support ourselves in a basic way. That doesn’t exist in London as the rents are too high. It’s a real struggle for artists down there. I know this because I used to be one. I have a deep affection for London, but it’s like Disneyland. You live in a theme park in your twenties then run back to the real world when the money runs out. Some of this appears in the novel, where Andrea visits the city and can’t get over how grand all of the houses are. I still feel like that every time I visit, even the shit bits are gentrified now. How do you fix the divide? I don’t know. It’s existed for far too long and I’m not convinced there is an easy fix.

ML: Reactions to her are very striking – there is an existing model for the hard-drinking working class renegade male author, but responses to Dunbar’s behaviour are extremely coloured by her gender. She didn’t self-define as a feminist, but what can her story tell us about the experience of unconventional women in the arts?

There’s a real sense of hypocrisy around her, where she was criticised by the press for drinking, being a single mother of three children by different fathers, and for being unmarried. Most of the articles from that period seem to mention that, but we look back on it now in 2017 and there’s nothing unusual about her situation. Some of the press saw themselves as upstanding citizens, there to protect the moral principles of the nation – which makes me laugh as they were all probably sinking five pints every lunchtime before filing their columns.

Of course if you’re a male writer then it’s perfectly acceptable to spend your days in the pub – Dylan Thomas, Charles Bukowski, John Cheever and Malcolm Lowry all wore the romantic drunk badge with pride. But somehow women aren’t allowed to do that, they are supposed to behave, raise the children, be responsible and chain themselves to the shackles of motherhood. Dunbar didn’t do that, and the press made an issue out of it. Most of her inspiration came from The Beacon or Cap & Bells pub on the estate, she loved it in there and spent most days drinking with the regulars, playing dominos, and hearing the local gossip. When you see footage of her there is a tangled wisdom there; in one interview she’s smoking a fag in Theatre in the Mill, they film her from one side as her face is badly scarred from falling through a glass porch after a piss-up, and the light illuminates her. She’s unlike anybody I’ve ever seen, pure unbridled talent – and smart, so clever, she saw through the bullshit and I think that was frightening for some.

She didn’t define herself as a feminist at all but if it wasn’t for radical feminism she may not have ever been discovered in the first place. The women who worked at the Women’s Aid refuge in Keighley (where she stayed for a while after fleeing domestic violence) were connected to consciousness raising groups. Claire MacDonald and Jalna Hanmer passed on her script to Liane Aukin and that’s how The Arbor first arrived at the Royal Court. She was also employed at a theatre company in Bradford and worked with Lee Comer on her placement at Impact Theatre Group. This all happened as a direct result of feminist networks, they made a positive change in her life at that time.

ML: You capture the atmosphere of the Buttershaw estate where Andrea lived extremely vividly in the novel – what did you draw on to achieve that sense of place?

I visited the estate over the course of a few years, I don’t live that far away – and spent some time in the Local Studies library in Bradford. They have boxes of press cuttings and microfiche. I also read through the archive of material relating to Buttershaw in the 1970s and 80s and found everything from council reports to community newsletters. That combined with the documentary footage and press coverage I had already collated helped to create the location in my imagination.

ML: What were the advantages for you of the novel, as a form, rather than biography for example? And where events are disputed or undocumented, what did you use to guide you?

Richard Holmes describes biography as ‘making the dead walk again’, and I can see why after going through this process. My initial intention was to write a straight biography, but as I gathered more research material it became clear that I was relying on her plays as the main source of primary evidence, and as they were dramatised versions of her own life, they couldn’t be trusted as factually correct. She created drama from autobiographical details, so it only seemed right that I would do the same by creating fiction from fact. I have read hundreds (if not thousands) of biographies over the years and the standard cradle-to-grave accounts are often incredibly dull. Well-researched historical accounts don’t always make great literature. I read Laurent Binet’s HHhH which showed an alternative way of presenting history. And there were also non-fiction novel writers such as Capote and Mailer who fed into my thinking. I was heavily influenced by books written in West Yorkshire – or about subjects from this area, Dan Davies’ In Plain Sight, Gordon Burn’s Somebody Husband, Somebody’s Son, David Peace’s The Damned United, Kester Aspden’s The Hounding of David Oluwale, or Nicole Ward-Jouve’s spring to mind. Most of these books are masculine in tone (aside from Jouve’s), and about male subjects, so my novel is in some ways a feminist response to them.

ML: When you’re writing about another writer, how does it feel to try to tap into their creative process?

It’s hard to pin down Dunbar’s creative process as she simply recorded what she saw around her and only completed her plays under duress. She had to be locked in a room with a four pack of beer before the end result could be read. Max Stafford-Clark had a nightmare with her but it was worth it in the end. It has been said that writing was low down on her list of priorities as she had so many other things going on her life at the time. There was turbulence there, and of course she had three children to bring up. She could create seamless dialogue but not without a huge sulk. I work quite differently and wade through research at a slow pace before putting pen to paper.

ML: You were a founder member of The Brutalists, the first literary movement to be formed over social media back in 2006. What impact has social media had for writers, and how do you think this has changed since the days of MySpace?

We started the Brutalists because we were all too old to form a band, so a band of poets was the next best thing. The will was there and the internet gave us the tools to publish our own work. We didn’t need a publisher, we did it ourselves.  There was obviously a (small) audience for the kind of writing we were creating, and it happened at the right time, just as social media was beginning to rear its ugly head. Now it’s just a part of life, but back then nobody really paid much attention to the online world. We could say what we wanted, in the style of our choice. It was a no-holds-barred approach. Now I think young writers are becoming more cautious which may result in a return to print as a way of cutting their literary teeth.

Brutalism tapped into a DIY spirit in underground literature that had been around since Blake or Lyrical Ballads and was prominent in the West Coast mimeograph scene from 1960s onwards. We were artists as producers and designed our own manifesto, literary style and print/digital publications. The great thing about it was that MySpace enabled us to connect with thousands of other writers (internationally and in the UK).

There were writers coming through who, for the first time, had the chance to put their own poems and stories online. Some of them were exceptional but had no other way of getting their work read. They were not connected to any literary scene and some lived in isolated places, with the internet being their only way of meeting other like-minded writers – these were the dropouts, the losers, the drunks and the freaks. The next generation of literary greats. Small-town Dostoevskys, Fantes and Plaths. I’d like to think we gave them a step-up, or maybe they read our work and thought ‘that’s dogshit, I can do better’, which is also a good thing.

ML: What song would you pick for people to listen to while they were reading Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile?

I’m afraid that I can’t offer anything cool or sophisticated; my hand is forced to pick Exile’s I Wanna Kiss You All Over. It appears in The Arbor (1980) as a track that one of the characters sings and I’d like to think that it was one of her favourites when she wrote it. Ben bought me a vinyl copy for Christmas. I listened to it when I was deep into writing the novel. It’s a saccharine variation of yacht rock and I actually love it now. It will always remind me of writing the book, and I think everyone needs a bit of Exile in their life.