Review – A Celebration of Muriel Spark: Jackie Kay, Alan Taylor & Louise Welsh, Manchester Literature Festival
It’s cosily disorientating.
Not the auditorium at the Martin Harris Centre itself, for all that it suggests the nave of a modernist church, nor exactly the audience, decked out in its best cardigans and neatest trims. It’s certainly not our hosts, charming and articulate both, although there’s an intimation in the stage set of lilac-lit fronds.
It’s the whole. The whole is like being displaced to the BBC arts programming of the 1970s, before the likes of Bargain Hunt clogged up the daytime schedules, before – for that matter – there were daytime schedules. When the presenters were experts, rather than personalities.
Not that the gossipy Alan Taylor or the witty Jackie Kay are lacking in personality. Indeed, they make fine raconteurial foils for one another, conveying the impression that the easy give and take of their anecdotes comes as naturally to them as poetry flowed to the deceased Muriel Spark.
It is, after all, her centenary that we’ve gathered together to celebrate.
Taylor, the memoirist of Appointment In Arezzo, has the advantage of having known her in person. Introduced by fax, journalist and subject, he formed a friendship founded on hairdressing (Spark’s counter-interview of Taylor commenced with the commendably Grayson-esque “Where do you get your hair done?”) and cemented it by his house-sitting for her (although it slipped Spark’s mind to forewarn him of her serpentine neighbours before his arrival, she did have the courtesy to leave him a note advising that ‘the serum is in the fridge’).
Spark herself, before she made her divorced husband’s surname her own, was formed in Edinburgh, more particularly by James Gillespie’s High School For Girls, and most especially by one mistress above all others, the singular Miss Kay. One suspects that Spark herself was too much her own creature to be shaped in Kay’s image, but Kay was nevertheless the making of Spark.
In providing the original of Miss Jean Brodie, she secured the novelist’s future finances and fame, fixing her critical standing firmly in the eye of the general public and, perhaps, suggesting at an early age the mnemonic advantages of possessing a distinctive character.
Meanwhile, Taylor is a fount of short stories, each a testament to Spark’s singularity. A dedicated follower of designer fashion, we are assured that she would nevertheless donate her jumble to the local nuns who, in turn, would wear them modestly beneath their habits. It was an arrangement that suited both parties, unless, by chance, the clandestinely chic sisters should venture onto Spark’s property where, with their mistress’s scent in their nostrils, they would be immediately set upon by Spark’s understandably bamboozled hounds.
It is, however, a second tale of daring hairdo that sets her firm as lacquer. Spark’s invariable demand of her coiffeuse would be to “make me look different”. The command was redundant. Spark was the prime example of someone who was different; a deceptively lyrical spirit, the poeta of her tombstone who went on her way rejoicing.
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