Tag Archives: Muriel Spark Reading Week

What I Thought Of The Ballad Of Peckham Rye……….#MurielSparkReadingWeek

……….The American science fiction writer Robert Heinlein once said, “To be matter-of-fact about the world is to blunder into fantasy – and dull fantasy at that, as the real world is strange and wonderful”. It sums up perfectly the world that is Muriel Spark’s Peckham Rye for here the real world is strangely wonderful and wonderfully strange – but it’s never anything other than real for all its strangeness!

The Ballad Of Peckham Rye tells the story of how the mundane, humdrum 1950’s suburban life of the inhabitants of Peckham Rye is picked up, turned over, shaken thoroughly and then set back down again, altered forever, by the arrival of Dougal Douglas, a man with a special talent for creating mayhem and havoc in his wake. Before Dougal’s arrival Peckham is an everyday town where the peak of ambition is saving to get married and putting down a deposit on a house and where the biggest concern for it’s inhabitants is keeping their business from their neighbours! After Dougal’s arrival the place is characterised by intrigue, emotional blackmail, emotional breakdown and murder – and that’s to name but a few of the consequences of the havoc that is Dougal!

It’s a book that simply grabs you by the lapels on the first page and lets you know that things won’t ever be the same again.

“His name was Humphrey Place. He was that fellow that walked out on his wedding a few weeks ago. He walked across to the White Horse and drank one bitter. Next he visited the Morning Star and the Heaton Arms. He finished up at the Harbinger. The pub door opened and Trevor Lomas walked in. Trevor was seen to approach Humphrey and hit him on the mouth. The barmaid said ‘Outside, both of you.’ ‘It wouldn’t have happened if Dougal Douglas hadn’t come here,’ a woman remarked.”

You can’t help but wonder what Dougal has done to create this, but as the story quickly unfolds before you, told retrospectively, you realise that this is the tip of a very big iceberg where Dougal is concerned. The characters in the story essentially divide into three groups, those who are mesmerised by Dougal and fall under his spell, though who dislike him from the outset and those who don’t know what to make of him. Those conflicting reactions are all shown in the Crewe family – Humphrey Place shares the same lodgings as Dougal and is immediately impressed by Dougal’s charm and rhetoric, his fiancee Dixie waver’s initially before leaning more towards mistrust of Dougal, her mother Mavis and step-father Arthur are in the “like” camp almost inmmediately whereas their teenage son Leslie doesn’t hide his opinion of Dougal from the outset

“Leslie stopped chewing for an instant and stared back at Dougal in such disgust that he seemed to be looking at Dougal through his nostrils rather than his eyes”

On the surface the story can appear to be strange, but what Muriel Spark does wonderfully is to root that strangeness in everyday life. There’s certainly a suggestion of devilment in even the most literal sense about Dougal throughout the book and I guess it could be seen that the tale is a kind of morality observation about how the introduction of evil turns a community and its inhabitants. But for me I thought this was more part of the humour of Muriel Spark coming through in the story, almost teasing us as we read it. The awful events which happen in the wake of Dougal are actually all too believable. For example, there’s something very odd and unnatural in the relationship between Mr Druce the factory owner and Miss Coverdale, his mistress and head of the company typing pool, before Dougal’s “interventions!”. While there’s a way to go to bridge the gap between the rather creepily dull relations between the two at the start and the eventual denouement, it’s nevertheless believable for me.

I waxed and waned a bit in my feelings about the main character Dougal. Initially I warmed to him (admittedly partly because he’s Scottish and I’m nothing if not parochial!), then I wasn’t sure of him in the middle, but had come back to kind of liking him by the end because rather than seeing him as “the devil” in their midst I actually saw him a bit like the wind blowing the characters in one direction or another, or sometimes being like a mirror – well a slightly biased and distorted mirror perhaps, but still partly reflecting their lives back at them. There’s an old joke (at least I think it’s a joke!) that there are only two types of Scotsmen – the imbalanced one with a “chip on his shoulder” or the balanced one “with a chip on each shoulder!”. Yet Dougal Douglas added a third type – one with three chips for Dougal has a “deformed shoulder” and two lumps on either side of his head where he claims there were previously horns which were surgically removed! But just as Muriel Spark suggests some allegorical role for ‘Dougal the Devil’, she immediately takes it back when Dougal invites Humphrey to feel them and he flatly responds with “A couple of cysts…[he said]…I’ve got one myself at the back of my head. Feel it”

As with some other Muriel Spark I’ve read recently, her mastery of the little detail to turn a phrase or sentence is brilliantly done. She’s never less than mercilessly honest in opening up the everyday hypocriscies and inconsistencies and prejudices which lie in all of us. And of course that sardonic sense of humour is never far away. When Dougal’s immediate boss Mr Weedon confides desperately in Dougal that he might be on the verge of a breakdown, Dougal sympathasies but hilariously cuts him further down at the same time.

“Mr Weedin blew his nose and shouted at Dougal: ‘It isn’t possible to get another good position in another firm at my age……….Sometimes I think I’m going to have a breakdown.’ ‘It would not be severe in your case,’ Dougal said. ‘It is at its worst when a man is a skyscraper. But you’re only a nice wee bungalow”

What a put down! Or, as an example of how not to make someone feel better when they are pouring out their troubles to you, how about this!

“Merle ….sat down on the Rye and began to cry. ‘God!’ she said. ‘Dougal. I’ve had a rotten life’. ‘And it isn’t over yet,’ Dougal said sitting down beside her at a little distance. ‘There might be worse ahead’!!!!!!”

 I really enjoyed reading this. It’s sharp, funny and, as I guess you’d expect, it’s really well written by someone who clearly had the eye of a master and the craft to match.

The Ballad Of Peckham Rye reminds me that sometimes the unusual and the odd in life is actually all around us – as Jim Morrison of The Doors sang –  “People are strange!!!!!”

What I Thought Of The Snobs……….#MurielSparkReadingWeek

……….I read somewhere recently that the intended target of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” had been revealed as the record producer David Geffen and I was thoroughly disappointed by the news! I thought one of the enduring things about the song was the speculation and mystery about who had their hat “strategically dipped below one eye” and who always had “one eye in the mirror as [they]..watched [them self].. go by!” (Personally though I never met Carly Simon – obviously – I kind of harboured a secret ambition that rather than somebody exotic like Mick Jagger or Warren Beatty it might have been…well..em…me! )

Anyway reading Muriel Spark’s story The Snobs kind of reminded me of the song – because I kept speculating on who the snobs in the story might be – and then I realised that the candidates flicking through my mind were all people who I’ve known in my life. And that’s what’s so clever about this very sharp and cleverly observed story. In a handful of pages Muriel Spark captures perfectly, exactly what these people are like and it’s so well done you can’t help but flick through the snob register in your own head to see who best fits the bill! And in a lucid moment (only the one moment and it was a short one!) I realised that I can be a bit of a music snob myself!

The story has a biographical feel as Muriel Spark inserts herself into the story as a main character and from there it revolves around a couple of the worst snobs imaginable, Jake and Marion Ringer-Smith, who, having been found lost in the French village where they are travelling, are kindly invited to tea in the French château by a friend of Spark’s, who’s come into the ownership of the château by virtue of an obscure family inheritance which shifts her from bus drivers wife to lady of the manor.

It’s a pretty merciless caricature of pretentious middle-class English-ness (though I think we have a Scottish equivalent which we call “all fur coat and no knickers!”). She decimates these kind of people but it’s no more than they deserve!

“Marion was very much one of those. If challenged she would have thought nothing of pointing out that, after all, she had paid a plane fare to arrive where she was. I remember Marion’s shapeless cheesecloth dress and her worn sandals and Jake’s baggy, ostentatiously patched trousers, their avidity to get on intimate terms with the lady of the house, to be invited to supper and, no doubt, to be invited to stay the night!

I love that phrase “avidity to get on intimate terms”! It reminds me of a boss I once had whose attempts to get on with the ‘big’ boss were, well, avidity to get on intimate terms! It’s such a good phrase and not only more literate, it’s also more cutting the the basic phrase which went through my head at the time which was “arse-licker!”

Anyway, the story is full of these poetically sharp, almost destructive, phrases which are well worth a read and well worth remembering – that ex-boss of mine wasn’t the only snob I’ve come across so I’m sure these phrases will come in handy in the future!!

What I Thought Of The Go-Away Bird……….#MurielSparkReadingWeek

……….This is a quirky and jaunty story about a nearly-but-not-quite upper class society girl Daphne (with being an orphan chucked in for good measure) in the 1930’s and 1940’s. It flits between her life in Africa and her return to England, where’s she half-used and half-exploited. It read to me like a bit of a “careful what you wish for” tale crossed with one of those Ealing comedy farces!!

The Grey Go-Away Bird, found in South Africa

Despite her relative privilege and wealth, Daphne’s silver-spoon life is populated by a myriad of weird and wonderful characters and peppered throughout with the distinctive call of the “Go-Away” bird (which not surprisingly calls “Go-Away! Go-Away!” and which again not surprisingly seems only to be within the hearing of Daphne and a few other selected characters).

Amidst the colonial trappings and then the privilege of a life on the periphery of society in England, there are many obstacles for Daphne, including advances from elderly gentlemen who should have known better, no advances from younger men who should have but didn’t know better, mad old men hell-bent on family revenge with Daphne as victim in Africa, scheming middle-class English “land-ladies” who seem to pre-empt the shameful greed of Thatcherism back when the “Milk-Snatcher” was unfortunately just a glimmer in a grocer’s eye and lovers who either couldn’t be bothered to love her or got fed up with loving her back!

Daphne floats through this mayhem and seems utterly unaware of what’s going on around her most of the time and you’re left wondering whether that’s due to lack of what we’d today call “being street-wise” and might then have just been “common-sense” or whether it’s because Daphne’s just not very bright!

The Go-Away Bird is a comical, dark tale and it gives a full reign to Muriel Spark’s caustic eye and what seems to me to be her rather sardonic wit! As you read it you keep thinking you ought to feel for poor Daphne but somehow you never quite manage it and my guess would be Muriel Spark never meant us too!

This is the first of the short stories I’ve read – if the others are even half as good as this then I think I’m going to enjoy myself over the next few days!

Lastly, as an aside, the Grey Go-Away Bird reminded me of someone – would you agree there’s more than a passing similarity???!

The Ginger F***-OFF Bird of A South London Squat