“You’re unnatural,” said Mr Weedin.

“All human beings who breathe are a bit unnatural,” Dougal said. “If you try to be too natural, see where it gets you.”

The artifice of the constructed persona: a favorite of this author. If you read The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960), you understand, as has been emphasized by Muriel Spark many times, that “unnatural” is another term for “dangerously non-conformist.” The danger is a threat to all, propagator not excluded, but you know without a doubt which, of the two, you are encouraged to prefer.

The Ballad of Peckham Rye

Muriel Spark’s fiction, particularly if you haven’t read any for a while, feels like putting a very familiar old vinyl LP on at 45rpm. You recognize it; you can hear every note. But there’s something terribly wrong, and the heightened pitch turns well-worn recognition into something bizarre, queasy, and difficult to adjust to. In altering the means of communicating the well-known slightly, it becomes alien whilst retaining its essence. You can’t settle, as the last place you want to find the strange (but where the strange very much is; you’re simply immune to it) is in that front room, that pub, that office: all those places you feel you have some kind of absolute impression of, which is, in any case, mere sanity-augmenting shorthand.

Imagine Ken Loach filming a Katherine Anne Porter script rewritten by Katherine Mansfield (with all Porter’s gloomy (if virtually clairvoyant and spookily specific) rebuking character sketches excised); or maybe an episode of Eastenders rebooted by Deborah Levy and Harold Pinter. And you’re still, like I am, grasping at what Spark actually does, and whom she compares to. No-one, simply put. I could throw up countless nonsensical mash-up suggestions and they’d be no nearer getting at her facility for satirizing whilst retaining empathy for all those under her garishly acute spotlight. She fashions scenarios for people in order that they rapidly dig their own graves but also renders them sympathetic as they condemn themselves.

Into Peckham comes Scot Dougal Douglas (or Douglas Dougal, depends which of his employers you ask), force of nature, agent provocateur, cat amongst the pigeons, all of that, to make his mark: that you’re never quite sure what that means is part of the fun. Ultimately, he’s a kind of chemical catalyst through which all other protagonists induce their real selves. Their day-to-day workaday selves are shrugged off in his presence: what they see in him as authentic is infectious enough to effect the same in them. He is too curious to assimilate by means of conventional wisdom, and no-one knows quite what to make of him. Peckham people either very much take to him, or they take affrontedly against. And this immediate acceptance/revulsion initiates the violent stir of the local hornet’s nest.

Dougal both befriends those he can readily manipulate and selects his enemies carefully, and then plays them off one another. And it’s all so easy. By the end, Dougal has precipitated, by merely meddling with a few lives, casual, drab murder, a stroke, various scuffles and one or two out-and-out fights (including a slapstick pub brawl featuring an ambulance and effectively the whole book condensed to two pages), the meltdown of at least two members of the community, and much that wouldn’t have been remotely believed had it not occurred at the hands of the skeptical, all too readily employed as purveyors of such mayhem.

Dougal begins his one-man devastation of the town by getting a job (and will soon get another for a rival firm, on top of an existing role as a ghostwriter of an autobiography, which he can’t help but embellish considerably) at local firm Meadows Meade & Grindley.

“They must be bored with their jobs,” said Dougal in a split-second of absent-mindedness.

“I wouldn’t say bored,” said Mr Druce. “Not bored. Meadows Meade are building up a sound reputation with regard to their worker-staff. We have a training scheme, a recreation scheme, and a bonus scheme. We haven’t yet got a pension scheme, or a marriage scheme, or a burial scheme, but these will come. Comparatively speaking we are a small concern, I admit, but we are expanding.”

“I shall have to do research,” Dougal mused, “into their inner lives.  Research into the real Peckham. It will be necessary to discover the spiritual well-spring, the glorious history of the place, before I am able to offer some impetus.”

Mr Druce betrayed a little emotion. “But no lectures on Art,” he said, pulling himself together. “We’ve tried them. They didn’t quite come off. The workers, the staff, don’t like coming back to the building after working hours. Too many outside attractions. Our aim is to be one happy family.”

But no Art! We’ve tried it! What chance “Art,” in any case, delivered in the bled-out, safely digestible format Mr Druce would sanction? He truly believes that “Art” is a frivolous sideline for the leisurely minded, a carefully administered commodity to aid prosperity, or nothing at all. Listen to him enumerate all his mooted “schemes.” Muriel Spark is no fan of Mr Druce, of course, and Dougal is her opportunity to lend him the required length of rope to hang himself. Dougal will, in chaotic short order, unravel Mr Druce and pretty much everyone else in this short novel, and it’s glorious to watch: both the ravaging, incandescent mayhem Dougal causes and a master stylist making supremely funny, odd bother out of a potentially unpromising collection of folk.

Humphrey Place, an engineer at Meadows, Meade & Grindley, is rather taken with Dougal (whereas Humphrey’s fiancée, Dixie Morse, a typist at the same company, mistrusts and bad-mouths Dougal at every opportunity) as though this mysterious interloper is manifest comradely confirmation of a deep-frozen, quickly thawed, ready-to-be-unleashed self Humphrey hadn’t known was in him. Dougal, effortlessly (because Humphrey is a suggestible pushover, like a fair few in Spark’s Peckham) enlivens Humphrey with all manner of convictions (previously these were half-baked suspicions regarding Humphrey, but Dougal fills any potential deliberation on Humphrey’s part with sheer gusto, and you can’t help thinking that the latter might well be turned by the least guileful bluster if it was of any personal use) that he’s far too enamored to keep to himself. He’s reborn, is Humphrey, and very quickly emboldened by Dougal, who has provided him with the conviction and proxy wherewithal he needs to articulate his feelings of discontent, aimed now entirely at fiancée Dixie.

“I know what’s the matter with you,” he said. “You’re losing all your sex. It’s all this saving up to get married and looking to the lolly all the time, it takes the sex out of a girl. It stands to reason, it’s only psychological.

“You must have been talking it over with Dougal Douglas,” she said. “You wouldn’t have thought of that by yourself.”

She stood up and brushed down her coat. He folded up the rugs.

“I won’t be talked about, it’s a let down,” she said.

“Who’s talked about you?” he said.

“Well, if you haven’t talked about me, you’ve been listening to him talking.”

“Let me tell you something,” he said. “Dougal Douglas is an educated man.”

Merle Coverdale, another employee at the firm, also falls under Dougal’s spell, despite not quite knowing what to make of him (a suspicion that merely proves her solid mental foundation — she’s smart enough to be a little wary of being beguiled by such a slippery curio — even though she is ultimately so stagnated by the drudgery of her existence, which involves a nauseatingly vivid and gruesome affair (“After six years going on seven, Dougal, I’m tied in a sort of way”: not to mention the money towards her flat Druce spiderishly pays to keep her cocooned nicely) with the vacuously entitled Mr Druce — that she can’t help joining the ranks of those won over by our roguish rabble-rouser) and almost thoughtlessly falls into his capering step. Ditto the considerably younger Elaine Kent, who works on the shop floor but has aspirations of much more: probably Merle’s position, if not her actual life, judging by her fearful contempt of her superior.

Trevor Lomas — who, like Dixie Morse, recognises in Dougal someone whose acts might lead to a disruption of their biliously contented, unexamined passivity; someone possessing large, dangerous quantities of that terrible thing, unpredictability and “life” — is an electrician at the firm and swiftly marks Dougal down as a useful nemesis. Here is someone Trevor can make sport of and solidify his identity via aggressively establishing an easy antithesis to. He is “completed” by Dougal’s arrival. Superficially, he understands that Dougal is upto something or other and can spot an unstable chameleon readily enough, being one himself; considering himself an alpha male, Trevor feels he must stifle Dougal’s ardour to reassert flimsy authority. All agents of change or potential leadership must be snuffed: the livelihood of the Trevor Lomas’s of the world, and their ability to sustain their existence, which rests on zero substance, demands it. And Dougal is precisely what he needs, and what Muriel Spark needs, to flesh Trevor out at his optimum fullest as utterly devoid, a bully subsisting upon the negation of others. (When Trevor and Dougal clash, it’s no accident that what unfolds is always exceedingly childish stuff. Neither have ever really left the playground: only one of them wants to stay there, crucially.)

It’s a feature of Spark’s fiction that she furnishes identifiable characters with a kind of indubitable authenticity by putting them in opposition to something. This is surely a key reason why, with such swift precision and employing such sparse dialogue, she can so rapidly formulate such convincing players. There is a kind of absence at the middle of a Spark fictional world around which any number of protagonists can orbit: but there is a necessity for ‘pairs’ for this vacuum to be negotiated. in their extremity, and mutual disparity, does each character truly exist, and we feel we know them as a “type” in opposition. Dougal manages to be the writ-large personification of an antidote to all those men and women Muriel Spark detests, and a brief advocate of a handful of marginalized, trapped characters who are bereft enough to see hope, not deranged rebelliousness, in Dougal. What we know, as well, is that so much of British identity is comprised of what we don’t like as much as by what we do. We, a majority (I argue) consider it more noteworthy to trumpet what we can resist; we define ourselves by what we avoid; we take solace in what we are not, how much worse it might be, as opposed to better. There is an inevitable gap attributable to such preventative and repelling positioning – actual wants and needs submerged by the dread of having the very little possessed threatened: a subsequent glorification of that very little as coping mechanism — akin to the gap right at the heart of Spark’s fictional mirror. So we not only get a group of characters believably embroiled in a town saga by dint of their clarity as opposed extremities of one another, we get a handy representation of an entire culture as well, with such psychological shorthand working perfectly well as a device which imbues deep reverberative substance to proceedings. It’s a clever function but we are dealing with a master, after all.

So it goes: everyone quickly forms an unshakeable opinion on this incorrigible invader who seems to do what he wants and care not a jot about whose feathers he ruffles. He’s no mere antagonist or stirrer: he really is conducting research. But there are no guidelines other than those he makes up on the spot, and his fascination seems to be equal that of a man only partially in control of his own acts. Not only is he curious as to how his next bit of outrage will go down, he’s not quite sure what that next outrage will be. Spark seems to be saying: any stone thrown into this dull, shallow pond would cause seismic ripples. Dougal needs little guile: he just needs vaguely cohesive chutzpah.

What Dougal does know with acute preoccupation is that everyone has a “fatal flaw,” his being that he cannot abide illness: his recent abortive engagement was derailed for that very reason, his fiancée, Jin, fatally flawed by her sickliness. He is, consonant with my earlier remarks about the celebration of our foibles as indicative of a reductive, recalibrated psychology, more than happy to drop his “fatal flaw” into conversation in the hope that he might find out the recipient’s equivalent.

All that’s really happened, you might say, is that Spark has lifted the lid on everyone for the sake of amusement/horrified fascination. Even were the revealed truths proof of some emancipatory substance, it’s hardly edifying in Humphrey’s case, and you wonder what he might gain from any vindication. He’s a pious Dougal acolyte who has borrowed a certain mischievous certitude about patently nebulous matters because, well, because Muriel Spark knows it’s fun to watch and because she wants forgotten people, forgotten types or even social groups to be confronted with their too-tame lot and to at least struggle with having their stasis shaken. It’s a form of revelatory authenticity that could scarcely ever be exhibited outside the novel: the goings-on here are pretty bizarre extrapolations of empathetic yearning on the behalf of an entire culture by a confounded author. You might see these kind of things happen in a Buñuel film, but you surely wouldn’t get the sense of dread and unease that Spark evinces. Similarly, Polanski might get at some of these scenarios adroitly enough, but he’d struggle to retain the sense of preposterous hilarity that always runs counterpoint to the always surprising moments of nastiness.

Spark also continues, here, her carefully wrought attack on conformity, domesticity, thoughtless living. That’s a very simple observation perhaps, but she really does take this stuff on with a ferocity and does seem maddened by “ordinary life,” which she considers deeply abnormal and insanity-inducing. That her emissary into such bleak environs is wary of what “natural” might mean to such people, but then carries out his “research,” which is quite simply to behave instinctively and to toy with long-held customs, before escaping, not without his own losses, would seem to suggest that, despite her constant rage against the stubborn, quietly suffocating blandishments of U.K. working class life, she knows how the game is set, permanently. You wonder if it was mere cathartic necessity that led her to wage yet another war against what she saw as the cruelty implicit in unavoidable adherence to conventional order and humdrum, glacial mediocrity to no end. She cares about even the most wretched of her creations, so we, if not care about the likes of Trevor Lomas, at the very least find him human and impossible to simply dismiss as a cipher.

The world of The Ballad of Peckham Rye is more definitively eventful than real life, and of course, fiction requires such expedients; but it’s also more real as it draws unwitting and irrefutable confirmations of what would normally be well hidden (and for good reason). It’s the essential characteristic aspects of a populace condensed into novella length, shaken, exacerbated for effect, loaded with dynamite and detonated. Murder is no worse here than wasted life or glowering glances as everything will be buried — secrets, truths, sympathies, desperations: the veil will always be returned to protect the modesty of a town’s inhabitants, and silence will resume, as time and “life” holds its eternal sway. The town drunkard, Nelly, incessantly reveals what Dougal and Spark are up to, but is, of course, derided as the delirious town mendicant. Spark leaves us up in the air, is non-committal about any actual futures, but can’t resist offering up some possibilities by means of a bit of convivial hearsay. She also, in suggesting a multiplicity of resolutions, spares those stuck in Peckham (not Dougal, of course) from any one inexorable path. She leaves them with what might have been, not really wanting to know what was, what is.

Before that open-ending: Spark sets those twitching Peckham curtains ablaze. Warm your hands on the glow.

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