Edinburgh Book Festival Reviews
- Dame Muriel Spark

The Warmest of Welcomes
Dame Muriel Spark As Dame Muriel Spark walked sedately - (elegantly dressed in a coffee coloured trouser suit) - into the Main theatre at the Book Festival on Sunday morning, the audience unanimously and spontaneously began to applause. Without doubt, now aged 86, Dame Muriel is our greatest living Scottish writer and her admiring readers were sure to give the warmest of welcomes as a symbol of great respect. This very special Book Festival event - the first time Muriel Spark has attended - was particularly apposite in this 21st birthday year.

Presenter Alan Taylor first asked Dame Muriel to read a couple of extracts from her most famous novel, "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", closely based on her own schooldays at James Gillespies in Edinburgh. This could not have been a more perfect start and which delighted us all. To hear those immortal lines "If only you small girls would listen to me, I would make of you the crème de la crème," read by the author, was simply magical. Her voice is rich and resonant, reading slowly and with dramatic pace. In conversation she admitted that this classic modern novel was written in just six weeks. In response to a question from the audience about why the book is so popular and her best known, she replied, "Maggie Smith who played Jean Brodie in the film. Some people even think she wrote the book!"

Over the next hour we heard how she had wanted to be a poet as a young girl, writing her version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, "an improvement on Robert Browning's poem." She described how she has always been an observer of people, listening to other people's conversations as a child, sitting in Edinburgh tearooms with her mother. She left Edinburgh aged 19 to get married, living in Rhodesia during the war years. Travel is vital for experience, she commented, to give a comparative outlook on life. Now living in Italy she has the space, peace and quiet to write where few people know her. On a typical day, she is writing at her desk in the morning, using the same pen and a favourite Thins bookseller notebook. "Inspiration is a blank page" she revealed "Concentration is the key with no noise, no distractions." Her latest novel is "The Finishing School" which delves into the life of Mary Queen of Scots and the murder of her servant Rizzio, an unsolved story she wished to explore. Her anecdotes, stories and nostalgic memories of Edinburgh and the Borders were told with a dry sense of humour and sharp wit. She does not see herself as an exile in Italy reiterating more than once "I consider Edinburgh as my home."

In honour of her outstanding literary achievement, Dame Muriel was presented with the inaugural EIBF Enlightenment Award. This will be presented annually to a writer attending the Book Festival who has made a distinguished contribution to world literature and thought. Each year's award will be a unique artefact especially created for each winner. For Dame Muriel two carved bookends depicting the Georgian architecture of Charlotte Square were specially commissioned from artist Timothy Richards: the design represents her birthplace of Edinburgh and her writing life. Dame Muriel was genuinely moved and touched by the tribute and responded in her inimitable style - "I am very honoured and surprised. I shall now have to live up to it."

Vivien Devlin, August 2004

Return to Index of 2004 Fringe Reviews.

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