Maggie Muggins, or Spring in Earl’s Court
(Michael Joseph, 1981)
Never go back. Usually that is a sound piece of advice, given at least something, however small, will have changed and not for the better.
The windows of your childhood home are dirty. Ditto the curtains of your first London flat. The school phone box from which many teenage romances were conducted has been removed, redundant in the Vodafone era.
As you may have guessed, these are real-life examples. You will have your own, I’m sure.
Maggie Muggins was one of my very favourite novels of the Eighties. I bought the paperback edition and raved about it to anyone who would listen. It tells of 24 hours in the life of Maggie, the central character … a good-time girl? Drifter? Drop-out? Problem drinker? A bit of each, perhaps.
The day in question sees Maggie on her ‘milk round’, visiting all her previous London addresses – usually bedsits in crumbling mansion blocks – to collect her post. As she has lived in Town for ten years, and been constantly on the move, that’s a lot of addresses and quite a lot of post, this being the age before e-mail.
Flashbacks and real-time encounters introduce us to her friends and acquaintances, a collection of low lifes that makes the late Jeffrey Bernard’s confreres appear, by comparison, to be weekend guests at Balmoral. Funny, sad, brilliant: that was the verdict of my 21-year-old self all those years ago.
I lost my paperback, but the other day whistled up a copy of the hardback from the reserve stock of the West Sussex library service and re-read it. Was it a mistake to go back?
Let’s get the minuses out of the way first, starting with that thing by which a book should not be judged: its cover. The paperback cover was a cartoon-ish hoot, depicting bedsit denizens moving in and out of one of the aforementioned mansion blocks. The hardback cover is terrible, being a portrait of Maggie so hideous that one cannot imagine how her bed-hopping career ever got under way.
To use a vulgarism common at the time: I wouldn’t touch her with yours, mate.
More substantially, perhaps, some of the characters seem rather more hackneyed in 2017 than they did at the start of the Eighties. There’s Sean, her golden-hearted gay best friend; Riggsy, the woozy older woman who finally has enough of Maggie and won’t help anymore; Ken, the pipe-smoking lecturer who has an adulterous affair with Maggie before returning to his wife but not before making Maggie pregnant.
And I fear we are supposed to chortle hugely at the titanic dullness of Maggie’s father, who is (of course) a minor bureaucrat in the provinces. Waterhouse’s visceral dislike of social workers is well-remembered by fans of his journalism and much of it is merited, but the staff members with whom Maggie deals seem to have no redeeming features whatsoever.
But this remains a great London novel, albeit one set in a London that has changed enormously in the intervening decades. The Tube system and the postcodes of bedsit-land are, fittingly enough, the framework on which the narrative is hung; the names and locations of pubs and other drinking dens are the way stations.
Then, of course, there is the writing, giving voice to Maggie’s take on just about everything.
On Islington: ‘All tarred with the same caring brush … She was sick of living in a borough where everyone you met was looking after number two.’
On the differences between ‘faces’ and ‘punters’: ‘faces knew their way about, punters didn’t’.
On Earl’s Court: ‘Where the grapevine ends.’
And on herself: ‘If Maggie ever had need of a passport, she hoped they would let her enter “Private person” as her profession.’
Some observations remain relevant, such as the sub-division of larger rooms and flats by landlords eager to pack in as many tenants as possible: ‘She couldn’t remember, in all her ten years in London, ever having been in a room, and most certainly she’d never lived in a room, that wasn’t really half a room.’
Others do not, such as the criticality of the payphone system, not just for outgoing but also incoming calls: ‘Henry’s personal blower…was the end booth nearest the street.’
But it is funny what strikes the reader as utterly alien nearly forty years on. More than the heroic levels of smoking, the occasional racial epithet, the pre-digitalness of everything, there is a scene towards the end in which Maggie’s father rather awkwardly tells Maggie that her cousin Sandra works in a hospital registry and – to Maggie’s horror – saw the file card that recorded the birth of Maggie’s son, passing this information to Maggie’s dad.
Maggie owns up, informs her father the boy has been adopted and that’s that. A bit embarrassing but there you are.
No screaming blue murder about data protection, the right to privacy, no demands that Sandra be fired.
A different world. Thanks to Waterhouse, it is one to which we can indeed go back.