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Muriel Spark Centenary (1918 – 2016)

Part Two: Kensington, London.


Muriel Spark wrote wonderful words about the London district of Kensington. Born in Edinburgh in 1918, she came to live in bombed-out London after the second world war.


One of Muriel Spark’s best-selling and most popular novels The Girls of Slender Means (1963) was set in late 1940s Lancaster Gate. That same area of central and west end London would feature in two of her later novels.


A Far Cry from Kensington (1988)


This novel sees ‘The divine Spark shining at her brightest,’ according to Claire Tomlin of the Independent newspaper.  In January 2018, marking the centenary of Muriel Spark’s birth, it was serialised on BBC Radio Four in the Book at Bedtime series. This was part of a bigger centenary celebration launched by the BBC in their season entitled The Vital Spark. Another programme in the series was entitled The Many Primes of Muriel Spark.


The story is based upon Muriel Spark’s experiences of living in bedsit land in Kensington during the 1950s.The lead character Mrs Hawkins is a war widow who finds herself more often addressed by her first name of Nancy after she loses a lot of weight. By reference to Muriel Spark’s autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992) we can readily place Mrs Hawkins as an alter ego of Muriel Spark herself, and we can place Milly, the fictional Irish landlady, as a close replica of the real one whose name was Tiny and was a mother figure to Muriel Spark, offering her emotional refuge from the numerous challenges that were taking place in her family and work life.


An incident involving an anonymous poison-pen letter is a direct lift from Muriel Spark’s real life. The fictional victim is Wanda, a Polish immigrant. Wanda earns some pin-money (literally!) by making dresses and altering clothes. Her room is piled up with haberdashery. She fears that she may be thrown into prison or deported if the tax authorities catch up with her.


Muriel Spark is wickedly observant and accurate in describing Wanda in context of the hundreds of Polish refugees that attended the 1 o’clock Polish mass at the Brompton Oratory on Sundays in 1950. Everyone in Britain was still grappling and striving to find accommodation, food, fuel, clothes and jobs amidst post-war deprivation, rationing, and bureaucratic chaos.


It was with grudging admiration that Mrs Hawkins, alias Muriel Spark, came to the conclusion that: ‘Wanda and her friends knew far more about how to tap the resources of post-war London than I did.’ But of course, with the courage and survival instinct that drives war refugees to discover the practical aspects of the country that they have come to settle in, Wanda and her fellow Poles had doggedly learned the ropes. ‘What schools, what doctors? What jobs, what employment agencies? What public libraries? What names, addresses and telephone numbers?’


Loitering with Intent (1981)


At the beginning of this story, published in 1981, the lead character Fleur Talbot is sitting in a Kensington graveyard, eating her lunch hour sandwich and composing poetry. The book is another autobiographical Muriel Spark delight, drawing heavily upon her own real-life experiences as a penniless would-be writer in post-war London. She knew: ‘The world of 1950s publishers who, although occasionally crooked, were still gentlemen – dotty, charming and exploitative of clever women.’

The sparring between individuals in Loitering with Intent is laced with lively and acrimonious moments, sometimes verging upon farce. One can’t help imagining too that Muriel Spark was recalling her turbulent time of office inside the Poetry Society where from 1947 to 1949 she edited the Poetry Review magazine. She would write later that it had been a period not of ‘employment’ – it was, instead, ‘embroilment’.


All The Poems (1992)


In this book of her collected verse Muriel Spark presented her poems in date order when written. For me the very first page has the best poem: actually it is a suite of seven short poems dating from 1950 and occupying three whole pages under the series heading A Tour of London. The second poem is sub-titled Kensington Gardens and I love its descriptive scenery:


                                Old ladies and tulips, model boats,

                                Compact babies, mobile mothers,

                                Distant buses like parakeets,

                                Lonely men with mackintoshes

                                Over their arms …


Wonderful wordsmith that she was, Muriel Spark could hardly have known in 1950 that if she had penned that poem fifty years later, in 2000, she still could have spotted some mobile mothers in the park! I mean, of course, mothers gossiping on their wretched smartphones - when they ought instead to be talking to their own child.                                                                


‘The enduring genius of Muriel Spark’


I can happily align myself with the novelist and critic Carol Shields who confessed in 2003 that her desk was piled up with newly-published novels waiting to be read, and it seemed wasteful to turn instead to an old book; but: ‘The cover of a newly-published edition of The Girls of Slender Means was winking at me, and I knew that I could read it in one sitting, to encounter the rarest of fiction and to appreciate the early and enduring genius of Muriel Spark.’


Jerry Dowlen

February 2018


Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:


  Muriel Spark Centenary 1918-2018 Part One

   Charles Raw

   Rumpole December 2017

   Roger Moore as Ivanhoe

   Future Rock: Music and Politics in the 1970s

   The New Love Poetry and London's 1967 Unforgettable Summer of Love

   Stan Barstow

   The author E.M. Forster (1879 – 1970) in books and films.

  The novelist R.F. Delderfield and his heroes who roam from home.

  How The Wild West Was Written

Emmeline Pankhurst and Florence Foster Jenkins

John Updike

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

H G Wells

In praise of the British Seaside!Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn

Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986

Shakespeare's 400th Centenary

Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film

The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong

A Tribute to Margaret Forster

Remembering Saeed Jaffrey

Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie

Remembering Ruth Rendell

Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)

The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam

The Story of Edith Nesbit

Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert

Rebels With A Cause

Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective

The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas

The Bergerac Police Adventure Series

It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene

Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers

The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym

D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...


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