I would have been about fourteen, maybe fifteen and dare I say fed up with a school library that was full of tatty and ancient over-borrowed books. Should anything new arrive, often a gift from a school leaver, I'd borrow it whatever it was, just for the chance to have and to hold a brand new book.
Shallow I know, though I do still have that 'thing' about new books, but occasionally it paid dividends though I must have wondered quite what as I lugged home a hardback copy of the Complete Short Stories of Muriel Spark on the 408 bus from Cheam to Wallington and then walked it home.
One story from that volume has stuck in my mind ever thereafter, The Black Madonna and I then devoured the rest of the book.
I suspect my reading of Muriel Spark, for whatever reason then went the way of all things and I have read her sporadically ever since. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Girls of Slender Means but I don't think I have ever read A Far Cry From Kensington until now.
Off the shelf another book, Muriel Spark by Peter Kemp, this one a library reject last borrowed just the once from Cleveland County Libraries and to be returned on 7 Jan 1977, and bought by me years ago for £2.50 should the day ever dawn when I took a shine to Muriel again.
The fact that this was published in 1974 and A Far Cry From Kensington in 1988 confirms what I already knew but hadn't quite appreciated; the depth and longevity of Muriel Sparks' literary career and perhaps how much catching up I have to do.
By 1974 Muriel Spark had already written enough to merit a critical appraisal of her work and the introduction, though doubtless dated, does offer some wonderful anecdotes and insights into her life and writing.
'Fiction to me is a kind of parable. You have got to make up your mind it's not true. Some kind of truth emerges from it, but it's not fact...if fiction is not stranger than truth, it ought to be'
Novelists emerge as professional liars, the art they engage in that of deception and Muriel Sparks' own books declared in her own words to be 'a pack of lies'. I think Fay Weldon said as much of her own writing in her dovegreyreader asks...replies.
Peter Kemp then goes on to elaborate that, in reading the work of Muriel Spark,
'To approach them looking for naturalism, then -- fidelity to the usual, steady reflection of all the probabilities --
is to invite disappointment.'
It was Peter Kemp's suggestion that Muriel Spark's books usually focus on a semi-closed society, a self-contained community, that helped to shape my thinking about A Far Cry From Kensington.
This is 1954 and the world seen through the eyes of young, war widow Mrs Hawkins is the world of publishing and the life in her 'rooming house' populated by a disparate range of highly amusing characters. Mrs Hawkins self-consciously well-proportioned, which, as Ali Smith points out in her introduction to this new Virago edition,
'...literally larger than life. large enough in a post-war time of rationing and utilitarian discomfort to suggest a comforting abundance to everyone who simply looks at her.'
Blessed not plagued by insomnia, an older Mrs Hawkins reflects back with enjoyment on the world that was hers, the people and the events that have shaped the life she lives now adding in some age advice about insomnia too
'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...for who lives without problems every day? Why waste the nights on them?'
My favourite housemate needless to say, Kate Parker, the district nurse waging a war of her own on unseen germs 'the work of the devil.'
'She was very thorough and eager about her cleaning, indeed about everyone else'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 your room wasn't clean.'
Time's are hard, the working day is long and through the first-person of Mrs Hawkins, an editor for Ullswater Press, Muriel Spark takes an acerbic look at the world of the novelist, satirising the publishing industry in the process and in the way that only an insider can.
This is pure Muriel.
Offering advice to would-be novelists Mrs Hawkins suggests
'You are writing a letter to a friend...write privately not publicly; without fear or timidity, right to the end of the letter, as if it was never going to be published, so that your true friend will read it over and over and want more enchanting letters from you...remember not to think of the reading public, it will put you off.'
Throughout the authorial voice steps back in to remind us this is a novel
'I offer this advice without fee; it is included in the price of this book.'but of course it might all be 'a pack of lies' too.
A deviously plotted hate-campaign from a writer Mrs Hawkins has called a pisseur de copie leads to tragedy at 14 Church End Villas, South Kensington but Muriel Spark has a way with tragedy. It certainly isn't overwrought and there is always comedy, yet scratch beneath the surface, find the cracks and society's shallowness and prejudices are mercilessly exposed.
In the words of Peter Kemp as he sums up the novels of Muriel Spark,
'The facts to which they insistently return - that men are lonely, divided, prone to deceit and treachery, die and do not want to - are hardly comfortable...These books may be elegant but they are elegant disturbers.'