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Adelle Stripe: Black Teeth and a Brilliant Smile

Adelle Stripe has previously been known as a poet and as part of the Brutalist movement. The other two main members of this movement, Ben Myers (Stripe’s husband) and Tony O’Neill, have gone on to write novels and now Stripe has followed in their footsteps, with a novel about Bradford playwright Andrea Dunbar, who sadly died at the young age of twenty-nine.

Bradford does not feature strongly in English literary history. However, the Brontë sisters were born nearby and J B Priestley was born in Bradford as was the painter David Hockney. It has featured in a few films, including Billy Liar and East is East. However, it is safe to say that there are not many novels set in Bradford.

Andrea Dunbar was born on the Buttershaw estate on the South-East edge of Bradford. At the time, the Butterworth was a grim place to live, damp, dirty and run-down, though it has apparently improved somewhat since then. She started writing at school and her talent was recognised by a couple of teachers. A play she wrote at that time was put on at the Royal Court Theatre. She wrote two more plays, one of which was made into a film. She became pregnant at sixteen, losing the baby following a car crash. She went on to have three children by three different fathers. She became a heavy drinker and a drug user. She died of a brain haemorrhage, aged twenty-nine.

In her introduction to this book Adelle Stripe states that this book is a work of fiction and is an alternative version of historic events. It has been manipulated, re-structured and embellished. The book starts, as biographies often do, with Dunbar’s death. She is in her flat, her life in chaos, her latest writing rejected and in some pain. We follow her as she visits her sister, goes to the pub, collapses and dies.

We then get a fairly standard biography but with, presumably, details embellished by Stripe, about Dunbar’s early life, her trouble at school, her pregnancy and miscarriage at age sixteen. But we also see that when she goes back to school after the miscarriage, she has some talent, recognised by the teachers and develops her writing and gets a good grade for it in her CSEs.

We follow hers ups and downs after this. She has three children by three different men. Two of the men beat her up, the third, who is married, spends most of his time at the pub. She goes to a women’s refuge (she meets man No 2 there, as he is a neighbour of the refuge). At the refuge, she also meets a woman who is involved in the theatre and it is she who helps her get connections and get her play put on at the Royal Court, leading to another play and a film of that play.

But is not all milk and honey. She does not get paid particularly well and, when she does get paid, the money is frittered away, buying drinks from every sponger on the estate (where she remains) and other expenses. She continues to draw unemployment money and is later prosecuted for doing so. She does not fit in with the theatre crowd, her personal life is a disaster, she is drinking heavily and most things seem to go wrong for her.

While Stripe does give us, in part, a reasonably conventional biography, she does indeed, as she states, embellish. Dunbar is praised for picking up on the dialogue of the locals and using it in her plays. (After her success, people warn against speaking to her, in case what they say ends up in a future play.) Though Stripe is not from Bradford (she was born in Tadcaster, some thirty miles away), she also clearly has an ear for the Bradford language and is happy to use the slang, the vulgarities and the dialect, without making it too difficult for the non-Yorkshire reader.

However, this is clearly a feminist novel. Most of the main characters are women and those that are male do not come out well. They are abusive, often lazy, full of themselves and drunken (but so are many of the women drunken). It is the women who bear the burden. Dunbar has to bring up her three children, with the help of her female friends, mother and sisters but not with any help from the fathers (or her father). Most of the women have to work to help support the family or, in some cases, as the sole wage earner. Clearly, unwed mothers is a key issue, as there are special schools for them, one of which Dunbar attends. There are also women’s refuges, for battered women. Stripe clearly makes her point.

Despite her success, the life of Andrea Dunbar and the people on the Butterworth Estate is not a happy one. Stripe gives us numerous examples. The traditional employment has been wool combing but, with competition from the Far East, this is a dying business. Wages are cut and jobs more difficult to obtain, as factories close. Loan sharks abound. They hang around the estate in teams and the people cleverly move their goods to a neighbour when they learn the teams are around, so that there is nothing to repossess. Stripe comments, about the young men, that they already had the face of old men, drinkers and robbers. When Dunbar returns from London she thinks Same houses, same problems, same families, same lack of money. No jobs, high crime, isolation, desperation, a steady diet of nothing.

Despite this, Andrea does not want to stay in London. She does not like the people, the heat, the filth, the high prices and the food. She goes home as soon as possible, as it is home. But, at home, she is not happy. She drinks heavily, she does not like the way her film script has been changed by the director and the authorities are after her for non-payment of tax and claiming unemployment benefits.

Adelle Stripe’s first novel is an excellent novel, showing how life in modern Britain can be very grim for some people and, all too often, it is the women who pay the greater price. There are few ways out and even for those with talent, escape is not as easy as it might seem. Andrea Dunbar’s tale is a very sad – dead at twenty-nine – but very well told by Adelle Stripe.

Publishing history

First published 2017 by Wrecking Ball Press