Sunday, April 16, 2006

The Ballad of Peckham Rye

The death this week of author Muriel Spark set me reading her 1960 novel ‘The Ballad of Peckham Rye’. The story tells of the mayhem spread by Douglas Dougal, a trickster figure employed in a Peckham factory but doing very little work. Along the way, it provides a fictional snapshot of south London life in the 1950s, with pubs (the Rye Hotel is mentioned on the first page), dancehalls and lovers fumbling on Peckham Rye. Like William Blake, who had a vision of angels in a tree on Peckham Rye, Spark’s Rye is a place of visions – Douglas manages to draw a crowd by pointing upwards and declaring ‘A new idea. Did you see it in the papers? Planting trees and shrubs in the sky. Look there – it’s a tip of a pine’. Another character sees ‘the Rye for an instant looking like a cloud of green and gold, the people seeming to ride upon it, as you might say there was another world than this’.

Spark also makes use of a local legend about a tunnel linking Peckham and Nunhead, supposedly an escape route for nuns in the time of Henry VIII. The novel features the discovery of a tunnel that stretches ‘roughly six hundred yards from the police station [in Meeting House Lane]… to Gordon Road’ and ‘formerly used by the nuns of the Order of St Bridget’. The excavation uncovers the bones of nuns in the tunnel.

Variations of this story crop in local history accounts, not least on the sign outside the (currently closed) Nunhead Tavern itself. There does not seem to be any real evidence for it, and I wonder whether in one of those folklore loops Muriel Spark’s fictional telling of the legend entered local folklore itself to become the source of some of the later stories. Anyway, good news on the pub itself, it is apparently due to be reopened by the people who run the Gowlett Arms in Peckham, a pub with a good selection of beers and delicious pizza!

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