2018 is Muriel Spark’s year. It is 100 years since the Edinburgh author was born and although she left Edinburgh when she was 19, Edinburgh never left her. It informed her writing all her life, particularly her experiences at her school, James Gillespie’s which was the basis for the Marcia Blaine School in the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Muriel Spark will be celebrated all year in a series of events funded by Creative Scotland and all her books are being republished by Birlinn. This Usher Hall evening had been coordinated and presented by Alan Taylor, a journalist who became a friend of Muriel Spark, and has just published Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship With Muriel Spark, and Rosemary Goring, Literary Editor of The Herald.
Taylor opens the evening at the packed Usher Hall by saying “Jings!” – surely not a word that Muriel Spark would use. As Ian Rankin says later, her favourite word for her characters was “Nevertheless!” Taylor reveals they had originally planned to open just the stalls but it had sold out in hours, so they opened the whole hall for 2,000 people to bear testimony to the continuing popularity of Muriel Spark.
This is reinforced by an early reading from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon. She tells us how she has loved Muriel Spark all her life and particularly Miss Brodie. Perhaps she got some good political advice from the passage she read in which Miss Brodie praises “her girls” for not revealing to the head that instead of learning grammar she was telling the girls about her fiancé Hugh. ( I like that!) She said, “It is well when in difficulties to say never a word, neither of black or white.” Advice Nicola might find useful in her political life. Mind you, Nicola would have argued with Miss Brodie had she been one of her girls, particularly over her love of Mussolini!
There is a lovely poem from one of Edinburgh’s other literary figures, Sandy McCall Smith, and Ian Rankin tells how a PhD grant to write a biography of Muriel Spark (whom he had never heard of!) led to him writing his first Rebus novel. So we can say Jean Brodie helped begat Rebus! Highlight of the evening is 20 minutes of excerpts from her only play, Doctors of Philosophy, directed by David Greig using some fine actors from the Lyceum. There are some very funny passages with Maureen Beattie in splendid comic form. Could it be we will see the play at the Lyceum next year? It would be a sure sell out to Morningside ladies of a certain vintage! The evening ends with Muriel Spark herself being interviewed by Alan Taylor at the Book Festival when she was 86 but still in sprightly form. Muriel was indeed the creme de la creme and everyone here enjoys remembering her.