On a cold and dark evening, members of the Muriel Spark Society and members of the public gathered at the National Library of Scotland to hear eminent author Alexander McCall Smith speak about Edinburgh and literature. One could sense the affection for this writer as soon as he appeared. Chairman Alan Taylor introduced him by pointing out the eerie coincidence of major Edinburgh writers having surnames beginning with S: Scott, Stevenson, Spark, Smith …
McCall Smith began by praising the acuity of Spark’s observations on the city of her birth, particularly with regard to The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Spark’s views are timeless, but McCall Smith would later remark on how the past disappears, how the Edinburgh of Miss Brodie had in many ways disappeared. The attenuation of the local by globalisation is something to be mourned. He spoke despairingly of how some modern buildings can detract from local identity with their sameness. However, some ugly builds can begin to seem more palatable – David Hume Tower anyone?!
In a wide detour to Africa, MS remarked how Muriel Spark was born in Edinburgh and moved to Africa. He, on the other hand, was the opposite: Africa born and now permanently domiciled in Edinburgh. Speaking more generally on the literature of place, he praised the sharp, fresh eye Spark brought to colonial society in Rhodesia. He praised similarly the writings of Nadine Gordimer and Spark’s friend Doris Lessing.
AMS remarked ruefully on a literary success can be a mixed blessing for a place. Savannah, Georgia is often deluged by tourists after the success of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”. He also explored the “reality” of depictions of place in literature. Was his Edinburgh fiction not too idealised? – a question he was often asked. Yet he wish to present Edinburgh in a good light, this was quite deliberate. He did mention that he had darkened one of his stories in the light of such comments. He also spoke about population make-up; many of Edinburgh’s residents were middle class people, involved in office work. Were his fictions so far away from that? He treated the audience to an amusing reading from a Scottish woman in Italy on the malaise of Scottish men; was football really so honestly admired?
The evening was a broad, amusing, and often affectionate exploration of literature and place. Afterwards, Society members and AMS repaired to another place: The Field Restaurant for a convivial meal, where other culinary, vinous and literary explorations occurred.