A Far Cry From Kensington
By Muriel Spark
Original Publication: Constable & Company, 1988
Reprint: Virago Modern Classics, 2013
For much of the year, I have been eagerly awaiting last April’s planned trip to London. We were going to stay at a fabulous hotel in Kensington. Daddyo, The Eight-Year-Old, and I spent weeks making detailed plans for how we were going to spend every minute of every single day.
Sadly, due to circumstances beyond our control, we had to cancel the trip. By the time what The Eight-Year-Old refers to as the Great Nurses Rebellion of 2015 got sorted out, it was too late.
I found this book while browsing through my local Powell’s on a lazy afternoon during the week when we should have been in London. At the time, The Eight-Year-Old was knee-deep in a debate with her soccer coach about the relative merits of toe-kicks and side-kicks. I could tell that was going to take a while, so I picked up Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. What can I say? The title spoke to me.
The book tells the story of Mrs. Hawkins, a publishing professional who makes the mistake of telling the aspiring author boyfriend of an already established publishing rock-star that he is a “pisseur de copie” who “urinates frightful prose.”
The fallout from that diplomatic failure and Mrs. Hawkins’ subsequent refusal to retract it costs her two jobs in publishing. It also has dire repercussions for one of her boarding house mates, who gets caught up in a swirl of anonymous letters, quack remedies, and inevitably, blackmail threats.
The book itself is a lovely mix of the absurd and mysterious. It’s also a surprisingly rich source of advice on the craft of writing.
The first dollop of crafty deliciousness comes shortly after Mrs. Hawkins throws the pisseur de copie out of her office on page 84.
“Now, it fell to me to give advice to many authors which in at least two cases bore fruit. So I will repeat it here, free of charge. It proved helpful to the type of writer who has some imagination and wants to write a novel but doesn’t know how to start.
‘You are writing a letter to a friend,’ was the sort of thing I used to say. ‘And this is a dear and close friend, real – or better – invented in your mind like a fixation. 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 friend will read it over and over, and then want more enchanting letters from you. Now, you are not writing about the relationship between your friend and yourself; you take that for granted. You are only confiding an experience that you think only he will enjoy reading. What you have to say will come out more spontaneously and honestly than if you are thinking of numerous readers. Before starting the letter, rehearse in your mind what you are going to tell; something interesting, your story. But don’t rehearse too much, the story will develop as you go along, especially if you write to a special friend, man or woman, to make them smile or laugh or cry, or anything you like so long as you know it will interest. Remember not to think of the reading public, it will put you off.'”
The other piece of advice addresses the question of how writers can achieve the necessary concentration.
“‘For concentration,’ I said, ‘you need a cat. Do you happen to have a cat?’
‘Cat? No. No cats. Two dogs. Quite enough.’
So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.”
Canelo and I are pleased to report that this latter piece of advice works great. That is, until the cat does something like this.
(Photo: Shala Howell)
That never ends well.
(Photo: Shala Howell)