Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Battered Penguins VI

The Key Above the Door was first published in 1923 and is the work of an Irishman called Maurice Walsh who spent a lot of time in Scotland as an official of the Customs & Excise. His main claim to fame, Wikipedia tells me, is a short story called The Quiet Man, which John Ford made into a film with John Wayne.

This novel of Walsh's tells the story of a confirmed bachelor who lives an idyllic life in a simple cottage beside a loch. When the story opens, he and some friends are indulging in a spot of not entirely legitimate salmon fishing when they are apprehended by Edward Leng, who is the new tenant of the land they are on. The book proceeds to recount the story of the subsequent prolonged battle between Leng, who is very reminiscent of Gerald in Women in Love, and our hero, Tom King, who is at the start of the book a kind of innocent Adam in a highlands garden of Eden. A woman is involved, of course, and Tom - after some sauciness when, stranded after a boating accident, he has to spend the night with the woman in question clasped against his bare chest (to keep her warm, you understand, innocent, bracing stuff) - loses his heart.
The book is highly romantic and, I suppose, pretty silly – JM Barrie admired it greatly, which is no great recommendation, given his sentimental proclivities. However, it romps along with lots of fine descriptions of the highland landscape and some fisticuffs and nice descriptions of food. I actually bought it because I know exactly the area it is set in - indeed, I am ashamed to say, some of my relations by marriage own the land upon which Tom King’s cottage with its ‘key above the door’ stood until recently. Misguidedly, I think, the family in question decided that the little building was ruining their view and had it demolished.

While I cannot pretend the book is a work of astonishing genius, I enjoyed it and found it a good antidote to the rather miserable tales of despairing rudderless souls by Jennifer Egan and Lorrie Moore that I have been reading lately, (on the recommendation of literary minds far more informed than mine). This tale is told with gusto and is full of a love of existence and the world around us. It is, essentially, escapism, but as such it made a pleasant change.


  1. The Irish painter Manus Walsh, grandson to the author himself, presented me a few years ago with an old edition (Chambers, 1931)of 'The key above the door', which was Maurice Walsh's first novel, but only now, August 2011, I made an attempt.
    In fact I have just finished reading the book, and so have discovered the agile narrative, lively colourful descriptions of the Scottish landscapes and precise dialogues of Maurice Walsh. Quite a surprise to me, and I am happy to confess! I did really enjoy the story of Tom King of Loch Ruighi, his comradeship with Neil and Archie, his rivalry with Leng, and his not very predictable love affair with Agnes de Burc. Easy to read, short chapters (I read it in two days), and very entertaining – thoughts, feelings, popular songs, fights, happy ending and all. A second part could have been written, with the main characters going south to Spain together!! (Spain is mentioned quite a few times, as some characters dream of travelling there).
    Let me repeat once again, but now using the speech of the protagonist…, I didn’t be myself expecting such a joyful reading experience, by heck!

    I must say that Manus Walsh took an active part in the edition of 'The collected poems and verses of Maurice Walsh' back in 2002. He was the illustrator of the book, and made an oral introduction as well in the act of presentation in Listowell, county Kerry, Ireland, following his grandfather's steps.

    (Carlos Pérez Torres, a writer from Malaga, Spain)

  2. By the way, the book was first published in 1926.

  3. That is fantastic. It is such a shame the original house was knocked down.