Muriel Spark at 100: The Crème de la Crème
On the eve of Muriel Spark's 100th birthday, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Birlinn and the Lyceum present Crème de la Crème, a guided tour through her life
On 1 February 1918, Muriel Spark was born. She spent the first 19 years of her life in Edinburgh, at which point she left “a place that couldn’t understand her.” Though she returned many times throughout her life, it is fair to wonder what she would make on the eve of what would be her 100th birthday, as almost 2,000 people come together for a birthday party unlike any other.
“Jings,” says Alan Taylor, co-host of the evening and friend of Muriel. It’s the only word that comes to mind to see the response.
Crème de la Crème is a guided tour through Muriel’s life. Rosemary Goring and Alan Taylor appear between performances to talk the audience through various parts of her life, from childhood to her life in Tuscany; her witty, adventurous spirit and, at times, her sense of exile.
Through her life in her own words, plucked from her autobiography Curriculum Vitae, through The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as read by Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, to Moyo Akandé’s enegertic reading from The Girls of Slender Means, the audience is invited, bit by bit, to get to know Muriel Spark better than before.
Ian Rankin recalls tales of beginning a PhD on Muriel Spark that never came to fruition, but questioning ‘What would Muriel Spark want?’ and dedicating those years to becoming a writer himself; Alexander McCall Smith performs a charming poem written especially for the occasion on her wondrous legacy. They both talk of her influence on their work, how even now she seeps into the pages.
Muriel’s only play Doctors of Philosophy hasn’t been performed in the UK as far as they know since the 1960s, but for one night, the public were privy to a rehearsal courtesy of the Royal Lyceum Theatre, to be considered a trailer for the full event. Wry and hilarious, even minus props and costumes, Muriel’s lyricism and wit shines through.
The evening closes with a reading from Muriel herself, recorded at her final appearance at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2003, two years before her death.
“Thank you so much for coming,” she beams, as she moves to read on Miss Jean Brodie. “I hope you won’t be disappointed.”
Muriel was a poet first and foremost; she was a novelist who has shaped Scottish literature; she was an essayist who could give a searing snapshot of life in fleeting but precise words; she was an influence that flows through writers today. Events like Crème de la Crème are a wondrous rarity, celebrating a true great that comes along once in a lifetime, in a city that not only understands her, but – in literary terms – simply wouldn’t be the same without her.
As birthday parties go, this is one to remember.