There’s something about this title which sounds unbelievably posh. Probably because it contains ‘Kensington’ and the phrase ‘a far cry’, which I can’t read without hearing rather a stout granny exclaim it in a wavering, operatic voice.
But A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark is not a posh book. Kensington isn’t the Sloaney/French Wholefoods-loving camp that it is today. We are taken back to the 1950s, when Mrs Hawkins – the main character – is living in a ‘rooming house’ filled with odd characters. Much of London is taken up with ‘bomb-gap’:
The rubble had been cleared away, but strange grasses and wild herbs had sprung up where the war-demolished houses had been.
This is a bit of a digression, but I thought I’d point out that Richard Mabey writes about something similar in his marvellous The Unofficial Countryside. (Especially as he writes about ‘defiant sparks’ and this is a book written by another defiant Spark.)
It was not until the Luftwaffe began ploughing up our city centres that conditions were right for its [rosebay’s] spread. Suddenly there was a vast wilderness of scorched, devastated earth, laid open to the light for perhaps the first time in centuries. The first summer after the Blitz there were rosebays flowering on over three-quarters of the bombed sites in London, defiant sparks of life amongst the desolation. By the end of the war there was scarcely a single piece of waste ground in the City that was not ablaze in August with their purple flowers.
It’s got to be one of the most positive spins on the Blitz I’ve ever come across. (There’s more about this magnificent book in an earlier post here. For now I better return to magnificent Muriel.)
Muriel Spark writes about these strange bomb-provoked patches of wildlife in the context of Mrs Hawkins having lost her job and filling her days with long bus rides around suburban London. It’s pretty bleak, ‘I spent my days after days on the top of buses staring out of the window and watching with discreet eyes my fellow passengers, most of them shabby’. But perhaps there is something of Mabey’s ‘defiant sparks of life’ in these grasses and herbs. Mrs Hawkins is a fiercely defiant character, and one who, like these plants, is constantly regenerating herself, flowering amidst the desolation of her rooming house.
But there is also something of an alien dreamscape in these ‘strange grasses and wild herbs … sprung up’ instead of houses. And this brings us to rather an excellent quirk of the novel, that it essentially consists of the thoughts and recollections of an insomniac.
Rather than telling the story of Mrs Hawkins, Wanda, Hector Bartlett et al in a simple third-person narrative, Muriel Spark has made Mrs Hawkins the storyteller. And Mrs Hawkins isn’t telling the story as it happens, she is lying in bed at night, ‘looking at the darkness, listening to the silence,’ thirty years later. She tells us, ‘it is a far cry from Kensington and the early 1950s, this scene of my night-watch’.
There is something dreamlike, or, rather, nightmarish about the story as it unfolds:
Suddenly, from Wanda’s room came a long, loud, high-pitched cry which diminished into a sustained, distant and still audible ululation.
This ‘cry from Kensington’ is horrific. It is the piercing cry which wakens one from a nightmare. And it is described with precise detail, as though it has scratched itself on to Mrs Hawkins’ memory so that she will never forget it. It is this cry, and the events that will follow, that still keep her awake, thirty years later.
The other thing about telling the story as the memories of an insomniac, is that a peculiar kind of pre-figuring often happens. Mrs Hawkins digresses about something that is about to happen, but hasn’t quite happened yet. So we learn early on, when she describes herself as ‘massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside’, that she is going to lose a great deal of weight: ‘It was not till later, when I decided to be thin, that right away I noticed that people didn’t confide their thoughts to me so much.’ And then follows the most eccentric piece of advice in the entire book:
If there is nothing wrong with you except fat it is easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half.
The getting thin doesn’t occur till much later, and is tied up with the plot in more ways than one might imagine. Yet Muriel Spark has already let it slip. My favourite example of this letting things slip is when Mrs Hawkins goes to a very posh dinner party. We first get an inkling of what’s to come when she says, ‘after dinner I forgot, being too puzzled and in the disarray of wondering if I had done the wrong thing about something else.’
The reader, of course, wonders what this something else might be. Then we get a little digression on quite how ‘formal and upper-class’ this dinner party was, but that, in spite of this, Mrs Hawkins had thought that she was ‘quite up to it’:
I didn’t think upper-class habits were so very different from any other English habits. It is true that I had read in novels about such eccentricities as ‘the ladies left the men at the table with their port’ but I didn’t attach these performances to real life.
And then we learn what happens:
At a certain moment there was a hush, not quite a silence. Lady Philippa was looking at me very intensely, and I hadn’t the slightest idea why … Suddenly Lady Philippa got up as if someone had said something that touched her on a tender spot; I thought she was going to make a scene about it. The other women got up, too. But I didn’t see what the men had done wrong that the women should leave them like that, haughty and swan-like, sailing out of the room. I would have liked to advise them to pull themselves together. The men shuffled to their feet and looked at me curiously, as if they couldn’t believe that I, too, wasn’t offended … Lady Philippa murmured, as she passed my chair, ‘Are you coming?’
While Mrs Hawkins at the time ‘hadn’t the slightest idea’ why there was this peculiar atmosphere and all the women were leaving the men, she has already told us exactly why. We are in the know, which makes the scene all the funnier – much funnier than if we too shared her naivete and had no idea what was going on.
So, really, you can see from her hopelessness at such a posh dinner party that it isn’t a posh book at all. It’s about someone very fat who loses a lot of weight, while working for various tiny publishing houses that are full of people who are completely mad. And it’s about a time when she terms a terrible hack, Hector Bartlett, a ‘pisseur de copie’, and the extraordinary consequences this will have on her life.
On the face of it, it’s funny, light and frivolous.
But it’s also about blackmail, suicide, poverty and terrible violence. Like dreams, horrific dark depths lurk beneath this colourful, silly surface. It may be a very funny book, but it’s also terribly unsettling. And it’s this strange, nightmarish combination that makes it such a brilliant book. No wonder poor Mrs Hawkins can’t sleep.