on 5 January 2012
This is an extraordinary story full of humour, both in exchanges between the characters and overall. It is a well-written book full of satire and whimsy.
It is hard to explain why this book is so good without disclosing too much of the story-line, but I will try. Dougal Douglas, a young Scots Arts graduate, is taken on by a small manufacturing company in Peckham. In short order, by a combination of devilry, charm, loquacity and sheer cheek, he manages to hold down two jobs, while also writing a book. He is a mischief-maker and almost everyone he comes into contact with becomes disturbed, even distressed. This leads to a murder, an attempted murder and a jilting at the altar. He makes a speedy exit when he is in danger of being unmasked. One doubts whether this sleepy part of South London will ever be the same again.
I really enjoyed "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", but this book is in a class apart. Another writer would have told the story in twice the length, but Miss Spark tells it with sparse prose, for twice the effect.
on 5 March 2016
“The Ballad of Peckham Rye” (1960) is a quite unusual novel, comparable with John Updike’s more infamous “The Witches of Eastwick” (1984). However, Dougal Douglas is more intriguing than Updike’s “devil”, Daryl Van Horne, not least because he crosses the line between being a character and a function for the novelist. He allows Muriel Spark to offer a view of South-East London in the late 1950s that catches its mix of friendliness and suspicion, repression and sexual activity and even sudden violence, as well as old-fashioned habits and fascination with the new, to be found not far away over the river. As Dougal, who is employed by the firm of Meadows, Meade & Grindley, manufacturers of nylon textiles, to bring “Arts” and “modern” insights to its personnel department, gets around and conducts his research, he draws people into a net of their making, though it would be more accurate to say that the net, while there but hidden, wouldn’t be formed had Dougal not appeared. The novel is also remarkably economical and mostly tells its story through dialogue in quickly succeeding scenes in and around Peckham.
This novel was new when I first picked it up for a train journey. I had been reading a good deal about Muriel Spark in newspaper notices at the time, so this was the chance to find out for myself. It was love at first read, and I was curious whether the wonder of it all might have survived the decades.
Muriel Spark's work is commonly classified as `satire', and I suppose that's fair. However something that her early admirers, including Evelyn Waugh, stressed was that she is not really like anyone else, and I believe that is true also. Obviously, satire has contemporary themes, so it might seem a likely candidate for early obsolescence, but a few moments' thought suggests otherwise. Juvenal Voltaire Swift and Macaulay have not exactly gone out of fashion, and are still read with enjoyment by people who cannot be bothered to look up their contemporary allusions, and 40 or more years after it was launched the satirical magazine Private Eye seems not only to be still going strong but to have passed on its special vocabulary, originally attached to figures now little remembered, to a new generation of fans. Small wonder in that case that Mrs Spark is still wearing well.
For newcomers to the author, this is as good an introduction as any. It is completely characteristic of her, it does not threaten memory overload with a huge cast of characters as The Bachelors possibly does, it stops short of being downright weird like The Hothouse by the East River, but on the other hand it escapes being lightweight like The Abbess of Crewe or even the immortal Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Of the standard Spark features, Catholicism is relegated to a brief mention, of much the usual kind, in the last page or two, but two of the characters, including the principal character (hardly qualifying as any `hero') are Scots. Her ear is as acute as ever, and readers old enough to remember the fashion for addressing people with rhyming animal names (`See you later, alligator.' `In a while, crocodile.' etc) must smile at the way the thing is done here.
The book evokes an era, and one that I remember quite well. This was the impoverished post-war Britain of dull clothes and duller food, before we first swang in the Swinging Sixties. Small manufacturing companies were still common, and it was still common for them to be British-owned and managed before automation, globalisation, the EU, MBA's and consultant-speak set in. Mrs Spark is a talented observer and mimic, and as usual there is little or no sense of affection for, or between, any of her characters. She is funny in a wry way rather than any aisles-rolled-in way, and as usual you never quite know where you are with her. Situations can become serious and even lethal in the proverbial twinkling of an optic, and one of her dramatis personae in this book is murdered and there is another attempt at murder or at least serious assault.
There is no outright irrationality this time, at least if you opt as I do for the theory that the bumps on Dougal's head are only sebaceous cysts. However Spark's characters are mainly just marionettes puppets and caricatures, and I'd say that goes for all of them in this book. I'm not sure whether I have been to Peckham in south London or to the Rye, which is an area of parkland or similar, but it features occasionally these days in news items about gang crime, knife crime and gun crime, often with an ethnic basis. It got headlines just a day or two ago when the ineffable current holder of the post of Home Secretary told us that she was afraid to go out at night for a takeaway meal in Peckham, and she has a constant police escort. That was what prompted me to reread the Ballad of Peckham Rye, because the title is a good one - like the ancient ballads this novel captures the feel of a time and place otherwise receding into inexact memory and helps us match it up against what it is like, or what we are told it is like, now. I never met Muriel Spark in person, I may or may not ever have seen Peckham Rye, but in a sense I shall always know her from there.
on 29 January 2016
Being (nearly) local and a great lover of Spark, I fully expected to laud this book. Sadly, no. Compared to her other works, this is a text which has dated unsuccessfully. It is really interesting to see a Peckham where manufacturing still went on, and the social world that went on in streets and venues I'm familiar with, but the racism was unpleasant to deal with. And whilst Spark's plotlines can be uncomfortable at times to great advantage, in Ballad, it isn't in a good way.
on 28 January 2011
Muriel Spark's work deserves to be revisited. Her style is very economical, presenting credible characters in just a few words. The Peckham Rye of the 1950s comes alive in her humorous account, which is short, but perfectly formed.The Ballad of Peckham Rye (Penguin Modern Classics)
In this novel, the pre-1963 stasis of Peckham Rye-as-it-never-was is turned upside down by the maverick Dougal Douglas. I have just read it for the first time, and - to damn with rather faint praise – it is the sort of novel which would have amused me if I’d read it at school in the 1960s, but now seems a bit laboured and unfunny. You could say it has become a period piece, in contrast to Miss Jean Brodie and Girls of Slender Means, which were written as period pieces, but it doesn’t stand comparison with either of them.
In his introduction to the 1999 Penguin edition, William Boyd almost becomes an apologist for the novel. He says, “I don’t wish to posit this as some sort of social document in the Sillitoe-Wain- Amis school”, and argues that Dougal is not, as one might imagine, “an urban, low-grade Lucifer”. I think he is wrong on both these points. The atmosphere reminded me very much of Malcolm Bradbury’s Eating People is Wrong, and Dougal descends upon the community to wreak havoc, for all the world like Darryl Van Horne in Witches of Eastwick.
It took me less than two hours to read this, and I don’t think I’ll bother again.
on 1 October 2012
For the most part this is a slight and whimsical tale, although by the end it has gone to some oddly dark places. To be honest, I think `whimsical' and `dark' are a literary oil and water, they really don't mix well together. So, despite having some high points of amusement, `The Ballad of Peckham Rye' has an unevenness of tone which is quite disconcerting.
It centres on Dougal Douglas, a young Scot hired in a nebulous personnel role for a Peckham company. Bracingly optimistic, he makes it his business to integrate himself into the lives of those around him. Undoubtedly he's a fun character, one whose unpredictability charms and disturbs those he meets, but I'm not sure Spark clearly works out what's at the centre of him. Is he a free spirit there to shake up the end of the Fifties, or merely a workshy conman with a great deal of charisma? Quite at lot is made by the character himself of the horns he had removed from his head when he was a child, but I'm not sure it really leads anywhere. If he is a devil, then he's definitely a mild and fairly ineffective one.
Part of the problem comes from how dated the book feels now. Certainly its portrayal of Peckham (a district of London not that far from where I live) feels a world away from the area today. That's fine though, as locales change over time and Dickens' London not being with us doesn't make his books any less brilliant. But more disturbing for the modern reader, is that a lot of Dougal's behaviour doesn't seem all that unconventional to modern eyes. Okay, his views on work would still be frowned upon, but his crying or his dancing unconventionally or even his banter, would not furrow many brows today. In a way he reminded me of Ignatius J. Reilly in `A Confederacy of Dunces' (a book written at much the same time, though published a lot later). He's another outsider who proclaims his genius, but one who is lot less socially integrated than Dougal and so still appears a strange and unique character. Dougal Douglas, I'm afraid, in 2011, has lost a lot of his USP.
The last third of the book turns oddly threatening, with forays into gangs of hooligans, blackmail and murder. After all that's gone before it's a jarring switch in tone. Maybe Spark is suggesting that such an unconventional force introduced into society, will only lead to crime and tragedy. Yes, the Dougal ride is fun, but look where it ends up. In which case it's not a particularly uplifting message, so I can only be glad that we now live in a world where originality and free thinking are more welcome.
on 30 October 2014
excellent but odd
A delightful short novel about a young man who arrives in a slightly posh bit of South London, stirs things up rather devilishly bringing this staid bit of town to life, and then he disappears. Is Dougal Douglas the devil or just a very naughty boy? Spark's prose is sparse - there's not a word wasted and it left me wanting to read it again soon.
on 2 December 2012
The basic story is summed up pretty well above - charming outsider arrives in community and causes all sorts of disruption. It's a well established formula, but Muriel Spark does do it here with real panache. Dougal Douglas is charming, funny, a little bit sinister, and the characters around him are believable portraits rather than just 'types'. Spark creates a funny and affectionate portrait of working-class (and more middle class) Peckham as a result of this acute skill for character.
What takes away from the book a little is that the ending doesn't seem quite believable, though I won't spoil it for you by explaining. Also, whilst Dougal is a great character, I did wonder at times whether he would actually get away with what he's credited with here, and I really wanted some sort of explanation eventually of his actions. Whilst leaving him a bit of an enigma does leave the reader to speculate, I did find it a little unsatisfactory.
Overall, then, a good read - amusing, well-drawn, intrigiung - but maybe a tiny bit slight in that it doesn't probe much beyond the surface.