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The Ballad of Peckham Rye (1960)

by Muriel Spark

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
6302025,777 (3.42)64
A man of devilish charm and enterprising spirit, Dougal Douglas is employed to revitalize the ailing firm of Meadows, Meade & Grindley. He succeeds, but not quite in the way his employer intended. Strange things begin to happen as Dougal exerts an uncanny influence on the inhabitants of Peckham Rye and brings lies, tears, blackmail and even murder into the lives of all he meets, from Miss Merle Coverdale, head of the typing pool, to Beauty, the resident femme fatale, and even Mr Druce, the unsuspecting Managing Director himself.… (more)
  1. 00
    Psmith in the City by P. G. Wodehouse (thorold)
    thorold: Irresponsible agents of chaos let loose in South London
  2. 00
    The Fall of Kelvin Walker by Alasdair Gray (slickdpdx)
    slickdpdx: For fans of slim well-written novels about devilish young Scotsmen.
  3. 00
    The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy (mambo_taxi)
    mambo_taxi: Both novels feature highly dubious lead characters who will have you rooting for the more delicate side of evil in the end.

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» See also 64 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 20 (next | show all)
Perfectly pleasing romp through the offices of Peckham. The ideal book to read on the sly when you should be doing some work. ( )
  alexrichman | Apr 26, 2020 |
This hectic book centred on Peckham is sometimes a bit confusing. Who is Dougal Douglas anyway? What's his game? I enjoyed this and also liked the Curiously Specific podcast unpacking it (https://www.curiouslyspecific.com/2018/11/09/the-ballad-of-peckham-rye/) but I think I need to read it again to properly get it. ( )
  AlisonSakai | Feb 10, 2019 |
This is one of Spark's crazier novels, published the year before Miss Jean Brodie. It is set in a working-class district of South London, and the story is all about factory workers and their bosses, dances, nights at the pub, fights about girls, petty crime, adultery, saving up to get married, sneaking lovers past the landlady, etc., so it's clearly setting itself up as though it's in the same genre as the novels and plays of contemporaries like Alan Sillitoe and Stan Barstow. But this is most definitely not grittily realistic angry-young-man fiction, it's more like a sophisticated, playful parody of its conventions. No-one here is the victim of anything other than their own moral limitations. The violence, when it occurs, is as balletic as anything in West Side Story, and the story line is constantly wavering at the very edge of realism.

The comic disturbing agent in the plot is the Scotsman Dougal Douglas, who often seems to be Psmith playing the part of Donald Farfrae. We're in Wodehouse country, after all: Peckham Rye is just down the road from East Dulwich. Douglas is an agent of chaos who enjoys inserting himself into social situations and interfering at random. Apparently he does this simply to see what will happen, as Psmith did, but he himself also enjoys dropping hints that he is an incarnation of the Devil, an interpretation Spark does nothing to confirm or deny (Peckham Rye is also William Blake country...). In the course of the story he completely undermines employee morale in two local factories where he's been brought into the Personnel department as an "Arts man" with an ill-defined mission to tackle disaffection and absenteeism (so ill-defined that he's able to hold the same job simultaneously in both companies without his bosses noticing anything); he sends several managers into breakdowns or depression; he sabotages a long-planned wedding, and he's indirectly responsible for at least two deaths. And he has time to adapt his adventures to fit a ghosted autobiography he's writing for an elderly actress...

Entertaining in a very Sparkish way, but I'm not sure if it does anything beyond that. There may well be a serious moral tale buried under all that exuberant chaos, but if there is, it's so convoluted and ambiguous that few readers are going to bother to work it out. ( )
  thorold | Oct 17, 2018 |
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. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | May 28, 2018 |
I'm in a generous mood and I do love Muriel Spark, so I'll give this one 3***. I very much liked the character of Dougal Douglas. In fact, if he really was the devil (or some such other diabolic spirit), then he's the kind of devil that Updike should have but failed to portray in the character of Daryll in Updike's very unsuccessful The Witches of Eastwick; and if The Ballad of Peckham Rye were ever made into a movie, my ideal image of Dougal Douglas would be a young jack Nicholson. Still, the conclusion is just too confusing for Peckham Rye to merit more than 3***. ( )
  CurrerBell | Mar 3, 2018 |
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» Add other authors (3 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Spark, Murielprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Bellone, Maria GraziaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Boyd, WilliamIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Carroll-Najder, HalinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Crepax, MargheritaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Delahaye, AlainTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Frame, RonaldIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Maaløe, ChristopherTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Rosen, Ingeborg vonTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schnack, ElisabethTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Taylor, AlanForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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'Get away from here you dirty swine,' she said.
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