Before moving to a bedsit in Camberwell in 1955, Muriel Spark had been born, brought up and educated in Edinburgh, then married and had a child in what is now Zimbabwe. She later moved to London and worked in intelligence during the war before taking up residence at 13 Baldwin Crescent, SE5, where she lived for ten years. It was during that period that she wrote The Ballad of Peckham Rye. It shows.
It’s a short novel, her fourth of many, and tells of the beguiling neighbourhood effect of a sophisticated, wicked and unorthodox young Scot called Dougal Douglas – or Douglas Dougal as he pretends in order to get away with having jobs as an “arts man” at two local factories at the same time, neither of which entail doing any work.
Dougal lights up a corner of the capital marked by a colourless parochialism nowadays romanticised by the sort of person who proclaims on social media that “London has fallen”. Spark brings to dazzling life a cast of local characters who would otherwise be dull, the unappealing, exceptions being a thug those attire has a touch of the Teddy Boy, a clip-clopping femme fatale and a wild-haired street corner preacher named Nelly.
This is the post-Blitz, pre-swinging London where pubs and cafés were social life cornerstones and where, with limited home ownership and council housing, people “took rooms” and gave landladies fourpence for phone calls.
A young character called Dixie, anticipating marriage with an excess of thrift, is a departed GI’s daughter. She and her fiancé, Humphrey, have furtive pre-marital sex but share a keen sense of hierarchy.
“Dixie will be a member of a youth club, I expect,” says Dougal to Humphrey who, “rather rapidly” says she isn’t. “She doesn’t have anything to do with youth clubs,” Humphrey says: “There are classes within classes in Peckham.”
This is a Peckham of small snobberies and prim ambitions, but also one where company bosses lead adulterous double lives and men have punch-ups in the streets.
For Londoncentrics, The Ballad of Peckham Rye provides a special layer of pleasure with namechecks sketching the parts of the capital Spark’s characters inhabit: Brixton, Nunhead, Dulwich, Elephant and Castle (where there’s a hamburger bar), the Rye itself, a common where 200 years earlier the poet William Blake claimed to have seen visions of trees filled with angels.
Even Dougal defers to these limits, making known his reluctance to “cross the river”, though his tongue might be in his check. Spark herself draws on wider experience as well as intimating local knowledge. She tells her readers that shopping for food in “the by-streets of Peckham” is as different from doing so on its main streets as it would be in Kensington or the West End.
London is not the novel’s main subject – that is the perversity and suggestibility of human behaviour – but it illuminates London lives of seven decades ago, brings home how much things have changed, and gets you wondering about how much has not.
This article was originally published on the John Vane: London Stories Substack. Why not subscribe?
I’ve set myself the task in 2024 of reading and writing about 25 London-based works of fiction I haven’t read before. Why not buy The Ballad of Peckham Rye from my local independent bookshop Pages of Hackney? I know I did. You can buy my London novel Frightgeist: A Tall Tale of Fearful Times, there too.