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whateverhappenedto margo

Like so many readers before me I simply adored Gerald Durrell’s My Family and other Animals (I read it twice) – and loved one of the books that followed, for some reason never managed to get around to the third. The more recent tv series – based very loosely it has to be said on the Corfu Trilogy – has made for delightfully cosy Sunday evening TV. I remember Margo as being a pretty minor character in those wonderful books, but in that TV series she is a wonderfully exuberant character – slightly bonkers, but very warm. While watching that series I had wondered about her, whether she was anything like the young woman portrayed so wonderfully by Daisy Waterstone. So, when I saw a review of this book (first published in 1995) reviewed by Joulesbarham Northern Reader, I couldn’t help but buy it almost immediately. I had been going to add it to my wish list, but oops – and there it was a day or two later.

An enticing, though brief preface by her brother Gerald Durrell – informs us that …

“Margo displayed an appreciation of the comic side of life and an ability to observe the foibles of people and places. Like us, she is sometimes prone to exaggeration and flights of fancy, but I think this is no bad thing when it comes to telling one’s stories in an entertaining way.”
(Gerald Durrell 1994 – in his Preface to Whatever Happened to Margo)

So, yes in Whatever Happened to Margo? there is a sense of things being a little exaggerated in order to entertain, and Margaret Durrell is both charming and entertaining. For those who love Gerald Durrell best – he appears here too – as does Leslie and the long-suffering Mrs Durrell.

It was 1947, Margo a divorcee with two young sons, the Durrell family were living in suburban Bournmouth, and Margo had little idea what she would do next. It was her formidable Aunt Patience who started it all. Her aunt; anxious that Margo should do something both useful and profitable – and ladylike – suggests that Margo open a boarding house. Margo is immediately taken with the idea. The search for a suitable house begins, and ends, oddly enough where it started, at a house across the road from the Durrell family home. Margo begins to prepare her new house to receive lodgers. Aunt Patience’s idea had been a home for genteel spinsters, retired clergymen and respectable colonels – and Margo tries hard to keep in mind the kind of establishment her aunt had envisaged for her.

Needless to say, things don’t quite work out like that. Margo is destined to gather around her a collection of eccentrics and ne’er-do-wells, starting with her first boarder Edward Feather, a painter of nudes.

“My sanctuary was heading straight for trouble, before I was even established.
‘I am sorry, you cannot paint nudes all over the place,’ I was desperately apologetic, feeling that I placed myself in the category of the mundane landlady.
‘Not all over the place,’ Edward Feather assured me soothingly, giving me a fleeting look of amusement from soft hazel eyes, a coaxing gentleness creeping in to battle my feeble defences. ‘Only in one room.’”

Other lodgers soon follow, almost all of whom would be despaired of by Aunt Patience. A very loud husband and his wife – who it soon transpires is heavily pregnant. A woman and her enormous son Nelson, a boy who at first appears hideously obnoxious, but his never diminishing enthusiasm and simple joy for everything means both Margo and the reader become strangely fond of this breeder of mice. A retired nurse, two glamorous young ladies and a couple of jazz musicians move in too, and it isn’t long before the house is almost bursting at the seams. In the midst of this, Margo does find time for a little romance with one of her boarders.

At this time, Margo would have been just twenty-seven, and she shows herself to be endlessly optimistic, warm and energetic, she and her lodgers are pretty well suited to each other. Margot and her sons acquire a huge dog that relieves itself wherever it pleases, and all is nicely set for chaos as rumours that Margo is running a brothel scandalise the neighbours.

Of course, there come the inevitable visits from family, first Gerald who had been working away at a zoo somewhere appears with a python and a box of monkeys. Of course, there is an escape, and much fuss ensues. When the inevitable visit from Aunt Patience happens, Margo spends most of her time hiding the worst of her boarders from her aunt.

“ ‘Being good boys and helping your mother?’ Aunt Patience suggested lovingly. They nodded together shyly, ignoring the open sweet-scented arms waiting to engulf them. ‘And doing well at school?’ she asked brightly, dropping her outstretched arms. Two heads nodded again. Aunt Patience, working on the assumption that children can be bought, took two dim pennies out of her giant handbag and gave them one each. ‘There, darling boys, buy yourselves something nice – but not dangerous, mind,’ she added, playful as a young kitten.
There was a curious glint in both eyes as they took the small offering; I noticed it with increasing alarm.
‘Ma’s got a pansy in the house – so Uncle Leslie said,’ Gerry remarked suddenly, softening towards his aunt, examining the penny carefully for fraud.
‘A pansy, how lovely, my favourite flower,’ Aunt Patience beamed ‘That’s one thing I must say in Leslie’s favour, he’s got green fingers.’ ”

Whatever Happened to Margo is an entertaining, engaging memoir. It lacks the classic brilliance of My Family and Other Animals but is very definitely worth seeking out if you are a Durrell fan suffering withdrawal.

margo durrell

hothouseeast

The Hothouse by the East River is a strange little novel, at once oddly unsettling and other worldly. Written in the present tense – a style Muriel Spark had already employed to great effect in The Driver’s Seat, lending her story an immediacy that works well here.

As with that earlier novel The Girls of Slender Means, here Spark concerns herself with the fall out from the Second World War and has used her own experiences to do so. However, The Hothouse from the East River is entirely different with a very sixties/seventies feel to it – the war is viewed in retrospect, from the distance of 1970s New York society. This society immediately feels slightly off kilter, this is deliberate of course, and in time will make absolute sense.

In their New York apartment, overlooking the East River, live Elsa and Paul Hazlett, it is a long way from where they started. Paul; originally from Montenegro met Elsa during the Second World War when they were both working for British intelligence at the Compound deep in the English countryside. These sections recreating life at the compound in 1944 are the most real parts of the story (again this is deliberate and will make sense to the reader who realises what is actually going on.) Muriel Spark worked in a similar environment during the war, and in writing these sections of this novel was drawing heavily on her own experience.

Here they worked alongside former German POWs – including Helmut Kiel. Now Elsa insists that she has seen Helmut Kiel working at a shoe store on Madison Avenue, looking just as he always did. Paul points out that Kiel died in prison back in Germany and anyway he would have aged, as they both have, yet Elsa insists it is the same man.

Paul has noticed there is something odd about his wife – her shadow falls the wrong way, which once he has noticed it, he really can’t stop seeing.

“He sees her shadow cast on the curtain, not on the floor where it should be according to the position of the setting sun from the window bay behind her, crosstown to the West Side. He sees her shadow, as he has seen it many times before, cast once more unnaturally. Although he has expected it, he turns away his head at the sight.”

What is it, that Elsa stares at all the time from their window over the East River? The household is peculiar too, Garven, Elsa’s analyst has moved in, playing the part of the couple’s butler so he can better observe his client. Absurdity looms large throughout this short novel; an overheated apartment with a heating system which seems unable to be regulated, a maid who threatens to jump from the window, and Paul wrestling the shoes from his wife’s feet as he believes the soles have a secret code written on them. Elsa’s best friend Princess Xavier, visits often, breeds silkworms in her bosom. All the time, Paul and Elsa appear to exist in a society of their own making.

“But Princess Xavier is not about to be perplexed on any point whatsoever. She is now interested in something else, far away in her thoughts, probably Long Island, where her farm of sheep and silkworms will be shivering for want of her presence and, of course, the cold. She opens one of the folds revealing a pink bulge of bosom. She puts her hand within the crease; her eggs are safe. She is in the habit of keeping the eggs of her silkworms warm between and under her folds of breasts; she also takes new-born lambs to her huge ancestral bed, laying them at her feet early in the cold spring-time, and she does many such things. She now folds herself back into her coverings and starts the process of rising from the sofa.”

Nearby lives Pierre; Paul and Elsa’s son, he is getting ready to produce a production of Peter Pan, with all the roles taken by people over sixty – Pierre considers this twist will be its selling point. Of course, one can’t help but be reminded of that scene where Wendy starts to sew Peter Pan’s shadow back on – in that famous story of the boy who doesn’t grow up. Elsa’s shadow causes much disquiet among members of her family.

The most interesting aspect of the story is the one aspect I really can’t discuss – but it is what makes this novel so memorable. It is the twist which lies right at the heart of this novel, and which I feel I should have figured out much earlier than I did.

In his excellent introduction (which opens with a warning to new readers to read it after the novel – I heartily approve this practice) to this Polygon edition, Ian Rankin tells us; that Spark had …

“…journeyed a long way from her childhood Edinburgh and wartime England, but she had more travelling still to do.”

The Hothouse by the East River is a surreal little novel which leaves the reader with several questions – I can imagine it making a good book group read – it will certainly divide readers. I found it compelling and bizarre, but still enjoyable for all that.

muriel spark

delta wedding

Delta Wedding was my first book read during May. I chose it to tick off 1945 of my ACOB – and I wasn’t sure if I would enjoy it. I know lots of people really like Eudora Welty’s writing, but my only previous experience of her writing was not very successful. In 2012 I began reading her later novel Losing Battles, (1970) a book of something like 400 pages, I read about half of it before giving up in frustration. I had really wanted to like it but just couldn’t get to grips with it. I felt I needed to give Eudora Welty another try and this much earlier Welty novel was a charity shop find last year. Good news, I enjoyed Delta Wedding very much indeed, so much in fact that I might revisit Losing Battles one of these days.

Right from the start I was drawn into the story by the exceptional writing and evocative sense of place. It is a novel which deserves slow, considered reading, and while there isn’t a huge amount of plot – the story of a large, Mississippi family, in the weeks around the wedding of their daughter to the plantation overseer, is quite wonderful.

“People are mostly layers of violence and tenderness wrapped like bulbs, and it is difficult to say what makes them onions or hyacinths.”

In September 1923 nine-year-old Laura McRaven travels on the Yellow Dog train from Jackson Mississippi to the family plantation of Shellmound on the Mississippi delta. Laura’s mother has died, and at Shellmound she is enveloped by the enormous Fairchild family – her mother’s family. The cast of characters is huge, and it took me a while to get to grips with who was who. I found some names confusing, a child with the same name as his father and several older aunts called by their husbands’ names; ie Aunt Jim Allen – and Aunt Robbie married to Uncle George – it doesn’t take much to confuse me.

As Laura arrives the family are beginning to gather for the wedding of Dabney the prettiest of the Fairchild children. She is still only seventeen and about to marry an older man, Troy Flavin, a man from the mountains, the family overseer and there is the feeling that deep down the Fairchilds don’t fully approve. Though everyone treats Dabney with all the deference due to a beautiful young bride to be, giving her advice, and gently teasing.

“‘Don’t ever let this husband of yours, whoever he is, know you can cook, Dabney Fairchild, or you’ll spend the rest of your life in the kitchen. That’s the first thing I want to tell you.’”

The day to day events in the lives of this large, proud Southern family are portrayed with humour and affection. Children race around the house and grounds, drawing, poor motherless Laura into their games and their world, while the adults concern themselves with wedding preparations and family gossip. Aunt Ellen is the mother of the bride, mother to eight and expecting again, married to Uncle Battle she is a warm loving presence. Uncle George, the firm family favourite is due to arrive soon from Memphis with his wife Robbie – though when he finally turns up, he is alone, Robbie having apparently left him. This is just about as shocking a thing as any of the Fairchilds have ever heard, that she should leave George! George of course can do no wrong, though we see him as a little less than perfect.

As with all families, stories are told and retold, some quickly taking on an almost legendary status. Like the recent story; told to Laura and then repeated later by the adults – of George walking the railway trestle with young Maureen, as his wife watched nearby. Maureen’s foot got caught in the rail just as the train was coming, George stayed to free the child’s foot as the train raced toward them. Tragedy was averted, but the story of such a close call is hard to resist.

Dabney, the child bride is in love – after her marriage she will move into another family house on the plantation, Marmion. She has her head in the clouds, appearing at table just whenever she feels like it – Laura notices. She is girlish and romantic but despite her youth she knows what she wants and the life she wants is just within reach. The old maiden aunts gift her a small, treasured night light, the object seems to be symbolic for Laura and the aunts and perhaps even for Dabney too.

“Life was not ever inviolate. Dabney, poor sister and bride, shed tears this morning (though belatedly) because she had broken the Fairchild night light the aunts had given her; it seemed so unavoidable to Dabney, that was why she cried, as if she had felt it was part of her being married that this cherished little bit of other peoples’ lives should be shattered now.”

 

Capturing a time and place perfectly Delta Wedding is the story of long, slow Southern days, a complicated loving family, and ultimately a celebration of a way of life. So very pleased I gave Eudora Welty another chance.

eudora welty

murder underground

I am still very behind with my reviews; this book was my last read of April which I read during the readathon the weekend before last. Murder Underground was a good readathon pick, as it was a real old-fashioned page turner from the British Library.

“Dozens of Hampstead people must have passed the door of the Frampton private hotel – as the boarding house where Miss Euphemia Pongleton lived was grandly called – on a certain Friday morning in March 1934, without noticing anything unusual. When they read their evening papers they must have cursed themselves for being so unobservant, but doubtless many of them made up for it by copious inventiveness and told their friends how they had sensed tragedy in the air or noticed an anxious look in Miss Pongleton’s eyes.”

A Friday morning in 1934 seemed just as usual, people hurrying off to their daily toil, when a bundle of clothes on the stairs at Belsize tube station, turns out to be the body of Miss Euphemia Pongleton. A long-term resident at the nearby Frampton Hotel, her fellow boarders are not noticeably overwhelmed with grief, but they are all fascinated by the murder of a woman they knew – though generally disliked. It seems that Miss Pongleton was a very tiresome old woman, miserly, despite her apparent wealth, she would walk to Belsize tube to save a penny on the fare.

The police very quickly settle on Bob Thurlow, boyfriend of Nellie who works at the Frampton, who they believe had reason to kill her. Nellie is inconsolable, telling everyone at the hotel that her Bob wouldn’t do such a thing – reminding them how good Bob was to Miss Pongleton, taking her little dog Tuppy for walks for her. However, things don’t look too promising for Bob, who was on duty at the station at the time of Miss Pongleton’s death, and over whom Miss Pongleton was holding information that she had threatened to go to the police about.

The Frampton hotel houses an odd collection of residents; from the attractive, modern young women Cissie and Betty, to the novelist Mrs Daymer and the respectably serious Mr Slocomb who now occupies Miss Pongleton’s armchair, old Mr Blend and the much younger Mr Grange. Mrs Bliss is the woman who presides over the house and her residents, rather scandalised at the trouble that has been brought to her door.

“Mr Basil Pongleton’s departure from his lodgings in Tavistock Square, a little later on the same morning, was less sedate. He was obviously in a hurry; yet it was after ten o’clock when he passed almost directly beneath the Frampton, whizzed along through the tunnel in the direction of Golder’s Green. The underground train which he took from Warren Street at about 9.25 would have passed that spot nearly half an hour earlier, and his subterranean wanderings on that morning were to cause him a good deal of trouble.”

Miss Pongleton had two relatives living nearby, her nephew Basil, and niece Beryl (they are cousins not siblings), one of whom will come into her money. Beryl is already well off – and it is generally supposed that Basil will inherit – although Miss Pongleton frequently fell out with Basil and would threaten to disinherit him. Basil was in the vicinity of Belsize park on the fateful morning, and proceeds to make himself appear suspicious with his increasingly ridiculous antics and lies. The reader knows Basil is innocent – yet no character has ever done more to make themselves appear rather guilty. Basil and his absurdities are all rather hilarious, giving a nice little touch of humour to this vintage mystery. Both Basil and Beryl are frequent visitors at the hotel, and Basil has recently begun a little romance with Betty – who also gets drawn into to the hapless Basil’s muddles.

Bit by bit the residents of the Frampton hotel begin to expound their own theories about what happened to Miss Pongleton, and two of them set off to investigate an unexpected lead themselves.

Murder Underground is the second Mavis Doriel Hay mystery that I have read, the other was The Santa Klaus Murder which I thought was entertaining enough though a little weak. This was much better and thoroughly enjoyable. Another winner from the British Library’s crime classics.

underground steps

I rarely take part in memes, but this particular one caught my eye – it’s good fun – and let’s face it, we all love a list.

high tableHigh Table by Joanna Cannan (1931) – Passed on to me by my good friend and fellow blogger Liz. I loved Princes in the Land by this author – a Persephone book, and though I suspect this may not be quite as good, I am looking forward to reading it very much. Annoyingly, I have just realised I have already done 1931 for ACOB.

emmeline

Emmeline by Judith Rossner (1980) – a fat Persephone book is a wonderous thing – and this one was a Christmas gift from my friend Gill. It tells the story of a girl supporting her family by working in a cotton mill.

ask no questions

Ask No Questions by Mary Hocking (1967) – I had to include a Mary Hocking. I spent a long time it seems banging on about her two or three years ago. Such an intelligent writer – though I think she is hard to pigeon hole. It appears to be the story of British agents, defectors and a woman whose husband is imprisoned in East Germany.

virago keepsake

(A) Virago Keepsake by various (1993)– sent to me by a friend from Twitter/bookcrossing land. This month is the 40th anniversary of VMC, this little collection was published for the 20th anniversary of Virago themselves. Containing writing by the likes of Maya Angelou and Margaret Atwood. (A bit of a cheat I know but I had nothing else for V). Virago has been such a huge part of my reading life for years. So, cheat or not, it feels appropriate.

ellen foster

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons (1987)– a later VMC by an author who will be new to me. I have two books by Kaye Gibbons that I bought a few months ago – this sounds extraordinary – and I always like discovering new authors.

new islands

New Islands by Maria Luisa Bombal (1939) This year I have been trying to widen my horizons by reading more fiction in translation. Maria Luisa Bombal was recommended to me by someone on Twitter – and so I bought this slim volume of stories off ebay, and I am planning on saving it for #WITmonth.

as we were

As we were by E F Benson (1930) Many of you will know I have been involved with Bookcrossing for a number of years. At the last UK convention another bookcrosser passed this book on to me saying something like ‘I saw of this and thought of you’ it was a book that had travelled quite widely between lots of bookcrossers, and she hadn’t wanted it to just go astray. I’m keeping it safe.

loitering with intent

Loitering with Intent by Muriel Spark (1981) I had this TBR long before I even thought of #ReadingMuriel2018. To be honest I only remembered I had it when I was sifting through my shelves and adding titles to my TBR spreadsheet. I have to admit I hate this cover (and this series of covers by Virago – some of their modern covers have been disappointing) so I may replace this one with a Polygon centenary edition to match the others I have.

incidents in the rue laugier

Incidents in the Rue Laugier by Anita Brookner (1995) I do love a bit of Brookner – I don’t think there is anyone who writes about the isolation of a disappointing Sunday afternoon the way Brookner does. I am reminded it is a while since I last read one of her books.

So, there we have it – a list to represent my blog name. Have you read any of these?

 

trick

Translated from Italian by Jhumpa Lairi

This delicate, tender novel was the last Asymptote book club read (the most recent one has just arrived) – and I was immediately intrigued, because while the author is unknown to me, the name of the translator is very familiar indeed. A literary writer in her own right, I think I read at least one of her books, maybe two – though so long ago, pre-blog I can’t be sure.

Trick is apparently the fourteenth novel to be published by Domenico Starnone, it is the story of a grandfather and grandson, a story of ageing, childhood and artistic ambition.

“What really prevented me from waving my arms and calling out for help was shame. I’d wanted to be more than the place I’d grown up in, I’d sought out the world’s approval. And now that I was at the end of my life and taking stock of it, I couldn’t bear looking like an hysterical little man who screamed for help from the balcony of the old house in which he’d been a young boy, the one he’d fled from, full of ambition. I was ashamed of being locked outside, I was ashamed that I hadn’t known how to avoid it, I was ashamed to find myself lacking the controlled haughtiness that had always prevented me from asking anyone for help, I was ashamed of being an old man imprisoned by a child.”

Daniele is over seventy, a widower and an artist and illustrator of some renown, who has been living in Milan for about twenty years. His adult daughter; Betta lives in Naples with her husband and their four-year-old son Mario. The couple are mathematics academics and having been invited to attend a mathematics conference in another city, Betta calls her father and asks him to come to Naples to look after Mario for a few days. Daniele is irritated at the request at first – but of course he agrees, though he is so distracted by his latest commission – and the reception of it – that he leaves it until the last minute to travel to Naples. The apartment where his daughter lives is in a house where Daniele once lived as a child, and so his memories of his past are very much caught up in his present.

Daniele is a wonderfully crafted character, reminding us that just because a person is a bit older, it doesn’t mean that their ambition lessens, neither does their need for approval. Daniele is shaken by the less than effusive reaction to the drawings he has recently submitted to the publisher of a new edition of the Henry James story The Jolly Corner he has been asked to illustrate. It is his work that is mostly on his mind as he arrives at his daughter’s apartment – the day before she and her husband head off to the conference. Mario is told that sometimes Grandpa will have to work, which he solemnly accepts, but Mario is four and doesn’t really know what that is.

Mario is an absolute dream of a child character, precocious, vulnerable, frustrating and loving, in only the way a four-year old can be. We see everything that occurs through the eyes of the child’s grandfather – yet it is Mario who drives most of the action and he is viewed by his grandfather with great affection and bewilderment. Daniele hasn’t spent all that much time with Mario in the past, and so the child is giddy with joy at having his grandfather come to stay. So much so he refuses to go to nursery.

The action (such as it is) takes place over just four days, days in which Daniele in tested to the limit. Time and again Mario gets the better of his old grandfather, Mario can’t read or tell the time, but he knows how to lay the table has an impressive vocabulary and claims to know how everything in the apartment works. Mario tells his grandfather his drawings are too dark, an assessment his grandfather takes very seriously and muses upon a lot.

The time that Mario and his grandfather spend together is certainly not all plain sailing. Daniele is rather out of practice and he doesn’t know Mario as well as perhaps he should. While Daniele can be moody and cross, he is also very loving and eager to keep the little boy happy, pushing himself to the limits of his physical capabilities when he is playing with the boy. However, he can also be a little careless and neglectful and it is Mario who soon starts to rule the roost.

“Seeing him go up and down, tirelessly, wore me out. I dragged a chair over to the ladder and sat down, but I forced myself to monitor any tiny faltering in his movements so that I could leap up in time. It was amazing, the amount of energy in his flesh, in his bones, in his blood? Breath, nutrition. Oxygen, water, electromagnetic storms, protein, waste. How he tightened his lips. And the way he looked up, the effort those too short legs had to make in order to span the gaps between the rungs with ease.”

Disaster (almost) strikes with a balcony door that only opens from the inside, (having previously read The Days of Abandonment I’m now seriously concerned about the doors in Italian apartments) and I read on with my heart in my mouth.

A kind of appendix to the novel, after the main narrative is concluded gives us some of Daniele’s drawings and artist notes. Here we get an insight into the mind of the artist and the grandfather in a very intimate way.

So, the Asymptote book club continues to introduce me to exciting voices in world literature – the latest arrival – looks like taking me right outside my comfort zone. I’ll be honest I’m very unsure about it – I’ll let you all know in due course.

domenico starnone

the ballad of peckham rye

I am rather behind in my reviews at the moment hence this one popping up now at a time I don’t usually post reviews.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye was my last read of phase two of #ReadingMuriel2018. I didn’t connect with this one quite as much as some of the others, and I found the last part of it rather confusing. Still there is a lot that is interesting about this slight novel and in the central character of Dougal Douglas Spark has created a memorable – if not entirely likeable – character.

Spark creates the feeling of the ballad of the title in the opening chapter – in which we are introduced to Dixie and her fiancé Humphrey Place. This first chapter tells the story of Dixie’s and Humphrey’s wedding – a wedding that never happens. At the critical moment – Humphrey says ‘I won’t’ bringing everything crashing down around, Dixie, her mother Mavis, and Humphrey’s best man Trevor. Everyone it seems is convinced that it would never have happened had it not been for Dougal Douglas. Here Spark’s use of language is particularly clever – ending this first strong chapter with a couple of prose lines which have a real musical quality to them, reminding us again of the title – that this story is the ballad of Peckham Rye.

“It is sometimes told that the bride died of grief and the groom shot himself on the Rye. It is generally agreed that he answered ‘no’ at this wedding, that he went away alone on his wedding day and turned up again later.”

From here Spark tells the story of Dougal Douglas, who arrived in Peckham Rye and rather set the cat among the pigeons. The Ballad of Peckham Rye is a comedy and its absurdities are well observed, Spark’s comedy isn’t always comfortable however. The Peckham Rye of Spark’s novel like her London boroughs in The Bachelors have a very sixties feel to it. The world of employment is changing – and Dougal Douglas takes advantage of that.

Dougal Douglas has come to Peckham Rye from Scotland – he is devilish and beguiling – and soon insinuates himself into the lives of a group of Peckham Rye residents.

“If you look inexperienced or young and go shopping for food in the by-streets of Peckham it as different from shopping in the main streets of Peckham as it is from shopping in Kensington or the West End. In the little shops in the Peckham by-streets, the other customers take a deep interest in what you are buying. They concern themselves lest you are cheated. Sometimes they ask you questions of a civil nature, such as: Where do you work? Is it a good position? Where are stopping? What rent do they take off you? And according to your answer they may comment that the money you get is good or the rent you have to pay is wicked, as the case may be.”

He is interviewed by Mr Druce; the boss of a textile manufacturer, Dougal is employed to bring the arts into the world of industry. He wastes no time in befriending Merle Coverdale, who is conducting an affair with married Mr Druce, and young Humphrey Place; an engineer. Dougal Douglas with his deformed shoulder – is someone soon noticed, and remarked upon, rather rudely, by the girls in the canteen. Yet, Dougal seems to enjoy the attention. He wastes no time in befriending Merle Coverdale, who is conducting an affair with married Mr Druce, and young Humphrey Place; an engineer.

“ ‘ What d’ you mean by different?’ Mavis said.
‘I don’t know. He’s just different. Says funny things. You have to laugh,’ Dixie said.
‘He’s just an ordinary chap,’ Humphrey said. ‘Nice chap. Ordinary.’
Humphrey did not mean it. Humphrey knew that Douglas was different. Humphrey has been talking a good deal about Douglas during the past fortnight and how they sat up talking late at Miss Frierne’s”

Dougal finds himself lodgings in the house of Miss Belle Frierne, where Humphrey is also living. From here Dougal begins his campaign of disruption, among his colleagues and neighbours. He is a sinister presence – appearing almost to shape shift – into how he most wishes to appear to others. While working for Mr Druce’s company he also gets himself employed by his great rivals, on the other side of the Rye – using the name Douglas Dougal. Dougal spends his time doing ‘human research’ which obliges him to absent himself from both his employers much of the time. Additionally, Dougal is ghost-writer to Maria Cheeseman a former actress and singer.

Dougal manipulates and deceives until finally he is driven out of Peckham Rye, though not before he has caused untold carnage. Though there is comedy here, it is pretty dark comedy. The novel shows Muriel Spark to be a constantly entertaining novelist, painting memorable and quirky portraits of people and places.

murielspark3