……….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!!!!!”