Junk by Melvin Burgess, London: Anderson Press LTD, 1996

This is the cover for the French translation of Junk. I couldn't find the one with Jemima Rooper on the cover.

I’ve written about Junk in a wider sense as part of my film chronology, but I wanted to say a bit more about the book.

Chapter 8 marks Gemma’s discovery of punk, but to set the scene in terms of the story so far…

Gemma has run away from home and is living in a squat in Bristol with her boyfriend, Tar, another runaway, and his older friends Richard, Jerry and Vonny who are crusties and anarchists. Gemma and Tar are 14 at the start of the story, and 17 at the stories close.

In chapter 8, Gemma is restless. She has run away from home, and has been impressively resourceful about it, but finds life with the crusties dull. This has a lot to do with the fact that they, being older, are behaving in a distressingly parental fashion towards her and Tar, something Tar quite likes, given he has fled two alcoholic parents, but something Gemma despises, having effectively run away from home because she’s sick of her parents telling her what to do all the time.

Prior to running away, Gemma stole £100 from her parents, (this book is set in the early-mid eighties, £100 would have gone a lot further then than it does now) and by chapter 8 it is starting to burn a hole in her pocket. She spends the money on getting a whole new look: Black leather jacket, black tights, short black skirt, and “a pair of filthy great boots” from an “army shop”. Plus a grandad t-shirt, “done up down the front with scruffy laces.” She has her ears pierced twice, and she gets her nose pierced twice. She has her hair done, and would have had it dyed only “I only had about twenty quid left.”

What’s interesting is that Burgess, as someone who lived through the punk/post punk period, acknowledges through Gemma that this isn’t the most credible way to go punk.

“Now, I know what you’re saying. ‘Hundred-pound punk.’ Well, okay. If you want to do that sort of thing properly you spend about two pound fifty. But be fair. It was my first get-up. The girl did good.”

Black lipstick and eyeliner complete the look.

That night, she and Tar attend “a bop”, at which a reggae band and a punk band play. Burgess describes very vividly the thrill and confusion of Gemma’s, not only first gig, but also her first punk gig, and how this 14 year old girl goes from wariness to confusion, to sudden recognition, to ecstasy within the space of about 5 minutes.

The next passage is one that I’ve found increasingly problematic on a number of levels, but which I will leave you to make up your own mind about. It is this passage more than anything else that has sparked my curiosity in terms of doing a study of how punk women have been portrayed in literature and in film.

“We’d stumbled on this real punk den more or less by accident. You could tell the girls who were the real punks. They looked like absolute slags. They didn’t care about anything. I felt completely over-dressed. When I had to go to the loo I found a hole in my new tights so I ripped it open and made another hole and ripped that open so my white skin showed in big holes in my black tights. I ripped my new little skirt at the front and tried to tear a hole in the tee-shirt but I couldn’t do it, the material was too strong. So I just undid the laces halfway down and rushed back out and started jumping about.”

Tar, the boyfriend, also has a great time, but is ready to leave before Gemma is. There is another boy, a punky guy, who has brought her a drink. Burgess describes him, via Gemma, thus: “He stood there in this horrible pair of thin black jeans and a safety pin through his nose. He looked like he’d been awake for about ten years. He looked like he’d been bleached and then left under the wardrobe.” She dances with him for a bit, and he asks her to come home with him. She decides a one night stand is O.K, and Tar has vanished so she says yes. She’s about to leave when Tar reappears, she gives him his bus fare, and then leaves with the other guy and his friends, who are all very punk. Then she remembers she has bought Tar a present (it is his birthday) so, despite really wanting to leave with the other crowd, she changes her mind and leaves with Tar instead.

She confesses to the reader: “I don’t know why I did it. I was really made up to go with that crowd. They were my crowd, I knew they were my crowd. It was almost like they’d been waiting for me.” She adds “I regretted it afterwards. Not going, I mean. I wanted to. But I couldn’t do that to Tar. Not to Tar, could I?”

At the end of the chapter it’s clear that she is still restless, and that she is still searching for something.

Two chapters later (chapter 10) the household hold a squat warming party, and Gemma, who has been ordered home after the party by Vonny on the basis that Tar needs space to sort himself out, meets Lily and Rob. In chapter 12, rather than going home to her parents, she moves in with Lily and Rob. Through them she is introduced to heroin, and she becomes a user. In turn, she introduces Tar to heroin, and all four of them become addicted. With fairly predictable but nonetheless shocking results.

Whether Burgess meant to pose the question ‘What would have happened had Gemma left Tar at the end of Chapter 8 and gone off with the punks?’ or not, the question can still be asked. If she had gone off with the punks, she might have still found heroin anyway, but then again, she might not have done…


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