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Why Spark's wicked spirit could only have been Scottish

One of the many good things about getting older is that, while in my own case I've yet to see any signs of getting wiser, one at least can give a passable impersonation of someone of more substance, intellectual and emotional, than is actually the case.

Usually this is achieved by nothing more difficult than keeping one's mouth zipped at the right time, a harder task than it sounds.

Even so, as aficionados of TV, radio and pub quizzes know, there are times when nothing can disguise a lifetime's information shortfall or ill-trained memory. For me, the annual humiliation, when all pretence is in vain and nothing stands between me and exposure, comes at the Muriel Spark Society Anniversary Lunch, held on the first Sunday of this month, to mark her birthday on February 1.

As regular readers of this column may remember, this elite group meets in a hotel in Bruntsfield, close to Spark's childhood home. After a hearty lunch and an unwise glass or two of wine, the members push aside their plates, take out their pens and do an excellent imitation of pupils at the Marcia Blane School for Girls bracing themselves for an exam. At this stage of the proceedings, the society's secretary sets a quiz on one of Spark's novels. This year it was The Ballad Of Peckham Rye. As the grand inquisitor informed us, the questions would devilishly difficult, as befits a devilish book.

The Ballad Of Peckham Rye was published in 1960, the year before The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, which may explain why, despite the critical success and sales it enjoyed on publication, it has never endeared itself to readers as widely as her universally acclaimed bestseller. Some, however, think it is by far her funniest book; the wit is certainly bitingly sharp and laugh-out-loud comic. It is also deeply sinister.

Set in the era of kitchen-sink dramas and teddy boy gangs, it is the story of a young Scot, Dougal Douglas, who is employed by a clothing business in Peckham to help elevate the minds of its staff and reduce absenteeism. Douglas, a great mimic with a hunched shoulder, does no work whatsoever, apart from fomenting dissatisfaction and worming secrets out of everyone. What ensues is a dangerous dance between classes and sexes in which Douglas plays the part of a malevolent spirit, perhaps even the prince of darkness.

Now, if you were to ask me the name of the company he is first employed by, or the woman who combs his hair when his girlfriend leaves him, or what street the archaeological dig took place on and in which dark deeds are committed, I could not possibly say. Questions like that lay empty on my answer sheet, as did many more. Even a few whose answers I could have dredged up, if I'd concentrated, went blank, as the mesmerising quality of pure snow took on a charm of its own. It seemed a shame to mess the page, really.

As a result, I scored shamefully low. I know of only one who fared worse, though he was too wise – see above – to broadcast this fact. Far more interesting than this trouncing, though, is the unforgettable mood of this book.

Described by one reviewer when it came out as "a 'big' novel packed, squirming and growling, into 202 small pages", it is a piece of brilliance, so assured and concise and powerful it is nothing short of masterly. Were such a novel to appear today, it would still feel ahead of its time in its pithiness and profundity, its hermetically sealed perfection.

It is also a corrective for those who think Jean Brodie is Spark's only important Scottish character. In Dougal Douglas, Spark created a figure whose homeland was essential in evoking psychological complexity and mercurial charm. One can imagine this impish figure capering through the borderlands today, as in the era when its ballads were composed, leaving mayhem in his wake. In Spark's portrayal this man has a fatal charisma, just like Brodie. She appeared to believe Scotland is the true home of such unsettling spirits. Who would argue with that?

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