Chapter One of A Far Cry From Kensington by Muriel Spark, with an introduction by William Boyd

Dame Muriel Spark, born 100 years ago this month
Dame Muriel Spark, born 100 years ago this month
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A Far Cry from Kensington is set precisely in 1954 and ’55. It is narrated by a woman called Nancy Hawkins who is looking back, decades on from the 1950s, on her early life. The young Mrs Hawkins in 1954 is a war-widow and 28 years old (Spark was 26 in 1954 and separated from her husband). Mrs Hawkins is very fat: “I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside.” Mrs Hawkins – which is how she is referred to through most of the novel – is living in a boarding house in Kensington. The “Far Cry” of the title reflects the distance she has travelled since then. Her reminiscences centre around life in the house, with its assorted, eccentric tenants, and her rackety career in two London publishing houses, from the small and indigent (the Ullswater Press) to the large and prosperous (Mackintosh & Tooley) and, eventually, an intellectual magazine called the Highgate Review. However, what seems aleatory and anecdotal soon begins to take on narrative shape in the figure of a self-important, talentless man-of-letters called Hector Bartlett. Bartlett, mysteriously, like a virus, begins to infect all areas of Mrs Hawkins’ life – her job, her home, the people she knows. Very quickly she begins to hate Bartlett and describes him – to his face and to everyone who has connections with him – as a pisseur de copie. “It means,” Mrs Hawkins explains, “that he pisses hack-journalism, it means that he urinates frightful prose.”

Bartlett’s intrusion into Mrs Hawkins’ life provides the narrative momentum to A Far Cry. He blackmails a fellow lodger; his liaison with a chic, successful novelist called Emma Loy gets Mrs Hawkins fired from two jobs; Bartlett’s appalling manuscripts keep landing on her desk; but, in a significant way, the plot of A Far Cry is not what makes it beguiling. The novel is dominated by the character of Mrs Hawkins and her tone of voice and is full of her bons mots and theories about how to make the most of life. For example:

“I enjoy a puritanical and moralistic nature; it is my happy element to judge between right and wrong, regardless of what I might actually do.”

And,

“Cultured people are not necessarily nicer people . . . Frequently, the reverse.”

And,

“[Friendship and loyalty] are ideals that can put too much of a strain on purposes which are perhaps more important.”

Mrs Hawkins is hugely confident and, in a real sense, a life force. People are drawn to her; people confess to her; people think she is wise and all-knowing; people ask her advice about what they should do in all manner of difficult and compromising situations. And so, as the story of Mrs Hawkins’ reminiscences plays out, this comedy of manners in post-war London, with its bomb-sites and poor food, its meagre pleasures and low-rent aspirations, delivers many riches. Spark has the publishing world dead to rights; she understands the feeble ploys and manoeuvres of people on the make in the most modest and unassuming of ways; she relishes life’s inherent absurdity.

In this sense she reminds me of Chekhov – that other gimlet-eyed observer of the human predicament – who wrote, in 1888, that the writer “should not be a judge of his characters or what they say, but an impartial witness… It’s time for writers, especially writers of real artistic worth, to realise that in fact nothing can be understood in this world.” - William Boyd

A Far Cry From Kensington - Chapter One

So great was the noise during the day that I used to lie awake at night listening to the silence. Eventually, I fell asleep contented, filled with soundlessness, but while I was awake I enjoyed the experience of darkness, thought, memory, sweet anticipations. I heard the silence. It was in those days of the early fifties of this century that I formed the habit of insomnia. Insomnia is not bad in itself. You can lie awake at night and think; the quality of insomnia depends entirely on what you decide to think of. Can you decide to think? – Yes, you can. You can put your mind to anything most of the time. You can sit peacefully in front of a blank television set, just watching nothing; and sooner or later you can make your own programme much better than the mass product. It’s fun, you should try it. You can put anyone you like on the screen, alone or in company, saying and doing what you want them to do, with yourself in the middle if you prefer it that way.

At night I lay awake looking at the darkness, listening to the silence, prefiguring the future, picking out of the past the scraps I had overlooked, those rejected events which now came to the foreground, large and important, so that the weight of destiny no longer bore on the current problems of my life, whatever they were at the time (for who lives without problems every day? Why waste the nights on them?).

Often, it is a far cry from Kensington and the early 1950s, this scene of my night-watch. But even now when I return to London, to Kensington, and have paid the taxi and been greeted by the people waiting there, and have telephoned the friends and opened the mail, that night I find again my hours of sweet insomnia and know that it is a far cry from that Kensington of the past, that Old Brompton Road, that Brompton Road, that Brompton Oratory, a far cry. My thoughts of the night dwell often on those past thoughts of the night in the same way that my daily life at the time has a certain bearing on what I do now.

It was 1954. I was living in furnished rooms in a tall housein South Kensington. I was startled, some years ago, by afriend’s referring to ‘that rooming-house near SouthKensington Underground you used to stay in’. Milly, theowner, would have denied indignantly that it was a rooming-house, but I suppose that is what it was.

Milly was sixty years of age, a widow. She is now well overninety, and still very much Milly.

The house was semi-detached, and on the detached side was separated from its neighbour by no more than three feet.There were eighteen houses on each side of the street, ofidentical pattern. The wrought-iron front gates led up a short path, with a patch of gravel and flower-beds on either side and lined with speckled laurel bushes, to a front door which bore two panes of patterned glass. All Milly Sanders’tenants had a key to the front door which led into a smallentrance hall. Milly herself occupied the ground floor. Onthe right, as you came in, was a hall-stand with a mirror,some coat-pegs, and a place for umbrellas; on one of its flatsurfaces stood the telephone. On the left was Milly’s bestroom, with a bow window, used only for visitors. Ahead wasthe staircase leading to the tenants’ landings, and, to the leftof the staircase, a short passage leading to Milly’s sitting-room, kitchen, bedroom and its adjoining conservatory andher back garden which was good and sizeable for a London house. These streets had been built for merchant families of the past century.

Upstairs on the first floor was a bathroom and furnished rooms let to two single tenants and a couple. In the front bed-sitting-room, which also had a bow window and a small kitchen adjacent, lived the couple, Basil Carlin and his wife, Eva, both approaching forty and without children. Eva was a part-time infant-school teacher. Basil, by his own definition, was an engineering accountant. The Carlins were unusually quiet. Once they were locked in their room no sound ever issued, even after midnight when the natural noises of the house had ended for the day.

Next door to the Carlins was a large bedroom looking out into the garden. It had a wash-basin and a gas-ring with the usual dark steel box beside it with slots for pennies and for shillings. Here lived and worked Wanda, the Polish dressmaker whose capacity for suffering verged on rapacity. But Wanda Podolak was generous of heart even though she could never admit to an instant of happiness. She had many visitors, some clients – her ladies, she called them – volubly having their dresses fitted, some compatriot friends, some of whom she described as enemies. Most of her visitors came from six o’clock in the evening onwards, after their hours of work, the clients being given preference over the friends and enemies, who had to wait on the landing till the fittings should be over. When Wanda entertained she didn’t put away her work; the buzz of her sewing-machine went on intermittently together with the sonorous Polish voices of the men, the clamour of the women and the clatter of cups and saucers as tea was prepared. The Polish conversations seemed all the louder for being unintelligible to anyone passing Wanda’s door.

At the far end of the first landing was a smaller room occupied by Kate Parker, a twenty-five-year-old district nurse, small, dark, plump, with round black bird-like eyes and white gleaming teeth. She was a cockney. She seemed to give off vibrations of vigour and certainly she had great courage. Kate was frequently out for the evening or away on a job, but on the few nights she was at home she cleaned her room. She was very thorough and eager about her cleaning, indeed about everybody’s house-cleaning; when she entered anyone else’s room, for a cup of tea or to take their temperature, she would often say, politely, ‘Your room’s nice and clean.’ If she failed to say this, it meant that your room wasn’t clean. Kate detested germs, the work of the Devil. So on the evenings when she was at home she would haul her furniture out on the landing and scrub her linoleum with Dettol. The furniture, too, would have been scrubbed with disinfectant had it not been the landlady’s property. Milly, long-suffering though she was, had objected to her table, chairs and bed being so much as wiped with a cloth impregnated with the stuff; it was enough, she said, that the house smelt of hospital after Kate’s energetic cleaning. She gave Kate some lavender wax to clean her furniture with. It was impossible not to know that Kate was at home for the evening by the bumping and dragging of the furniture on to the landing, and the mixed reek of lavender and disinfectant. Kate vowed that when she had the money saved up, and a place of her own, it would be furnished with white-painted washable wood. Kate was strict and proud about her savings; they went into the Post Office. She kept in a cupboard in her room a series of little boxes with ready money in them. They were respectively marked ‘electricity’, ‘gas’, ‘bus-fares’, ‘lunches’, ‘phone’ and ‘sundries’. Kate manicured her nails very carefully before going to bed, after the cleaning and hauling was over. She laid out her clothes for the morning with extra neatness. She would sometimes accept a drink, a sherry or a whisky, before going to bed, but always with a solemn sigh, as if to convey that she shouldn’t really be taking the stuff, it might lead to ruin.

The floor above was where I lived in an attic room with a slanting ceiling. A stove and sink were installed; there was a built-in shower in the corner and under the slanting roof a deep, low cupboard.

On this floor was a communal lavatory and two other rooms, one occupied by young Isobel, who had a telephone of her own in her room so that she could ring her Daddy in Sussex every evening; it was only on this condition that Isobel had been allowed to come to London to work as a secretary. Sometimes Isobel would spend an entire evening on the telephone, not only to her Daddy but to her large acquaintance, and her voice trilled and sang through the thin walls with the cadences and saga of her daily doings.

The other room on the attic floor, smaller still, looked out on the garden. It was occupied by a medical student, William Todd, whose auditory effects were achieved by his wireless, frequently switched on to the classical music of the Third Programme. He studied better that way, he claimed.

Sometimes I had a party, and I suppose that gave evidence of my tenancy. Apart from that I was fairly quiet when I wasn’t out for the evening. But generally when I was at home I would go downstairs and talk to Milly. Even down there in Milly’s ground-floor rooms, there was frequently a din, for repairs and odd jobs to the house had to be done in the evening by a Mr Twinny who lived a few doors away. The reason Mr Twinny came to hammer and scrape after his own day’s work was done was that Milly’s economy didn’t run to contractors or daytime workmen. Mr Twinny papered walls, with the paper laid out on a trestle work-table while Milly prepared the flour-and-water paste and brought to MrTwinny the gelatinous size that he plastered over the paper. Or he would be unchoking a drain, with a clatter of tools,

while Milly’s television resounded, and I sat watching, drinking tea.

Milly, like everyone else in the house or in my office, never used my first name. Although I was a young woman of twenty-eight I was generally known as Mrs Hawkins. This seemed so natural to me and was obviously so natural to those around me that I never, at the time, thought of insisting otherwise. I was a war-widow, Mrs Hawkins. There was something about me, Mrs Hawkins, that invited confidences. I was abundantly aware of it, and indeed abundance was the impression I gave. I was massive in size, strong-muscled, huge-bosomed, with wide hips, hefty long legs, a bulging belly and fat backside; I carried an ample weight with my five-foot-six of height, and was healthy with it. It was, of course, partly this physical factor that disposed people to confide in me. I looked comfortable. Photographs of the time show me with a moon-face, two ample chins and sleepy eyes. These are black-and-white photos. Taken in colour they would have shown my Rubens quality of flesh, eyes, skin. And I was Mrs Hawkins. 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, neither men nor women. As an aside, I can tell you that if there’s nothing wrong with you except fat it is easy to get thin. You eat and drink the same as always, only half. If you are handed a plate of food, leave half; if you have to help yourself, take half. After a while, if you are a perfectionist, you can consume half of that again. On the question of will-power, if that is a factor, you should think of will-power as something that never exists in the present tense, only in the future and the past. At one moment you have decided to do or refrain from an action and the next moment you have already done or refrained; it is the only way to deal with will-power. (Only under sub-human stress does will-power live in time present but that is a different discourse.) I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book.

However all that may be, in the year 1954 I was comfortable in my fatness, known as a ‘wonderful woman’ although I had never done anything wonderful at all. I was admired for my largeness and that all-motherly look. A young woman who I imagine was older than myself once got up in a bus to offer me a seat. I declined. She insisted. I realised she thought I was pregnant and accepted graciously. I enjoyed universal affection. I was Mrs Hawkins.

Between eleven o’clock and midnight the house gradually fell hushed and finally mute. On a few occasions the people in the house next door, a young Cypriot who described his occupation as vendor, and his English wife and sister-in-law, would decide to go out into their garden to have a row, or, as they called it when apologising next day, a bit of an argument. These were all-night occasions, but they were rare. Generally by midnight the last lavatory chain would be pulled – ‘That’s Basil,’ said Milly – and the house slept. I lay in bed absorbing the stillness. The silence was actual, it was beautiful to my ears, all the more that in my inward ear I heard again the past day’s sounds. Now that they were mute, I could put their sense together. And so, one of the night-thoughts out of many that I recall now, began with my waking to actually enjoy and almost hear that silence with which I have begun my story. My job was the noisiest I have ever known and in due time I will describe it. I say now that the silence that I woke to recalled to my mind another silence of my childhood while visiting relatives in Africa: I had been taken by car from Bulawayo to the Victoria Falls. Nature was still in the heat of the day. At a certain point, nearing the luxuriant forest of the Zambesi river, a deeper silence fell that made me realise that the previous silence had been illusory.

Milly had met her husband, John Sanders, in her native Cork early in the twentieth century when he was a soldier garrisoned there. Milly’s mother was a widow who kept a corner shop of general goods, with two marble-topped tables at which ginger-pop and lemonade were served. John Sanders, a young sergeant, came frequently to buy his cigarettes and to chat. One day he asked Milly to a dance. Milly, behind the counter, looked at her mother, who nodded. The nod meant ‘Yes, you can go,’ as Millyexplained to me.

Milly’s narrative skill was considerable. Once, I told her so; she looked at me in such bewilderment, such doubt whether I was serious or in some way suggesting the stories were not true, that I never again complimented her on her style. I just listened, and noted how she brought a scene to life by a chance descriptive detail in the right place and by that graphic and right placing of words which most of the Irish excel at. She had no Irish blarney, she never exaggerated. I could listen to Milly for hours.

When I first knew her she was a very pretty woman of sixty, with thick shining silver hair and fine features. I think she had probably been a beauty, but she was embarrassed by any compliments about her looks. Her bedroom was unheated and so she liked to undress and prepare for bed before the fire in her sitting-room, a partitioned part of the kitchen; but to do this she always turned off the television; she wouldn’t for the world undress in front of an actor in a play, an announcer, or one of the ministers of religion who uttered his few comfortable words at the end of the day.

Nor would Milly be seen walking with a man. She would certainly stop in the street to speak to a neighbouring male and would accompany a man she knew from the front door to his car, waving him good-bye. But she wouldn’t walk down the street or cross the road with him. She had been widowed ten years. She followed some rule of her early days, I imagined.

Once in the course of conversation I became aware that Milly, who had borne three children, was under the fixed impression that you could not conceive a child unless you had experienced an orgasm – she called it ‘that feeling’. I didn’t argue. I didn’t even draw any conclusion about Milly’s marital life, and on the question whether she thought, reversely, that an orgasm inevitably produced a child, I kept my peace.

My office was in a converted Queen Anne house, now pulled down to make way for a sheer squared-off piece of real-estate off St James’s Street. It was the Ullswater and York Press, known generally as the Ullswater Press, one of those small publishing houses which had barely survived the austerities of war-time, such as the rationing of paper supplies, the shortage of English printers, the lack of transport to carry the books from printers abroad; it had only kept going because the public was avid for books, especially the serious kind of books that the Ullswater Press provided. Then, as now, all jobs in publishing were greatly sought after, and, perhaps consequently, poorly paid. It was here, on the first floor, where the big general office was situated, that all the noise of the day went on. This room, which I imagine must have once been two interleading drawing-rooms, accommodated an editorial department at one end and a general sorting, post and packing section at the other. In between were three desks and a row of cabinets where the typing and filing went on; the two girls employed in these activities were sometimes joined by Cathy, the book-keeper, who would bring her bundles of bills from the accountant’s room upstairs when he wanted to be alone or

to receive a visitor in private.

In these months, the last of the firm of Ullswater and York before it failed, the accountant often wanted his privacy. When he sent Cathy down to us we speculated among ourselves who the visitor might be. Somebody ominous. Cathy, who had been in the firm far longer than any of us, wouldn’t say. ‘Is it the bailiffs at last, Cathy?’ No answer. She was aged somewhere between fifty and seventy, with a puckered, reddish face, a balding head perhaps due to frequent dyeing, and spectacles with the thickest lenses I have ever seen, before or since. Cathy would bend her head with its few strands of hair, reddish and grey at the roots, black at the tips, over her bills, muttering to herself until we brought her a cup of tea with a biscuit in the saucer, whereupon she would look up with a smile of gratitude far more than was called for. Cathy’s voice when she spoke above the existing din was a crackle of broken English. She had been in a German concentration camp in the thirties, and had got away.

The name of the firm, Ullswater and York, had no geographical connotation. There was a Mr Ullswater and a Mr York, partners. Two other directors and shareholders had joined the firm. Mr Ullswater, by far the elder of the partners, had now almost retired. He spent his days in the country, turning up once a month for a directors’ meeting. He wore a bowler hat and a tweed suit, in winter a grey coat. He would arrive in a taxi, tall, white-haired, large-faced and amiable, climbing the stairs with a leisurely air. But he always left in a hurry, marching off as quickly as possible round the corner to his club. Martin York was a round-faced, square-cut man of about forty.

I never got my last week’s wages. They owe me seven pounds, 1954 valuation. The noise in our general office might well have been due to an unconscious desire on our part to keep the devils away, after the practice of primitive tribes. The devils were to come in the end and Martin York was to go to prison for multiple forgeries and other types of fraud, but we employees, although we knew that the firm was rocky, did not as yet foresee quite so drastic a near future. We thought merely that we would soon have to find another job. In the meantime we got on with the jobs we had.

The shorthand-typist was called Ivy, a tall girl fresh from the secretarial college. Mary, the filing clerk, was a sixteenyear- old who had come straight from school. The packer and sorter was a young man called Patrick and I was, as usual, Mrs Hawkins, general do-all, proof-reader, literary adviser and secretarial stand-in when the respective secretaries of Mr York and Mr Ullswater left to get married and were never replaced.