Kirsty Gunn: Politicians are all talk, real vision comes from artists

It's exciting to think that 2018 might come to be known as Muriel Spark Year. Given that this year is the centenary of her birth we can hope '“ I hope! '“ for a whole host of Spark-themed literary events and discussions about literature, kicking off with Alan Taylor's festschrift at Edinburgh's Usher Hall at the end of January and going, on, all books blazing, for the next 12 months.
Muriel Spark, high priestess of the sentence, is more famous overseas than in Scotland (Picture: National Library of Scotland/PA)Muriel Spark, high priestess of the sentence, is more famous overseas than in Scotland (Picture: National Library of Scotland/PA)
Muriel Spark, high priestess of the sentence, is more famous overseas than in Scotland (Picture: National Library of Scotland/PA)

Taylor’s event on the 31st, which he’s chairing himself, features a host of writers and critics including Rosemary Goring and Ian Rankin, who started writing a thesis on Spark as a graduate student at Edinburgh University, but had to put it aside when the novels took over. Taylor, a close friend of the author until her death in 2006, and whose “Appointment in Arezzo: A Friendship with Muriel Spark” has just been published by Polygon, is also series editor for the Collected Works of Muriel Spark that will be coming out – all 22 novels’ worth, in batches – over the year to come.

Featuring introductions by a range of contemporary writers and beautifully produced and put together, the entire set, when complete, will be a sort of education in themselves about the literary ideals and aesthetics of one of the UK’s most important modernists. Very Jean Brodie, that. The idea that a stunningly lovely set of books might give us everything about Spark we need to know – “life turned into art” as Taylor puts it – is seductive indeed. “With hindsight, which is a wonderful thing,” he records her saying, “I could re-write my life entirely. I can see motives that I couldn’t see at the time for having done things. I can see very good motives, very good reasons why I acted as I did.” The author could be talking about herself, or any one of her fictional creations. Work for her, the writing, was everything.

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Later in the year, more Spark will fly at the Edinburgh International Book Festival with talk of a special centenary event featuring writers in interview with Taylor about the Scottish author’s reputation and why she’s known as a key literary figure of the 20th century everywhere else in the world but here. Hopefully, by the time the year’s out, all of us will have a bit more of the “creme de la creme” about us and will come to appreciate the Edinburgh native and ex-pat who always described herself as “Scottish by formation” as the high priestess of the sentence that she is. A statue in Morningside, please! A blue plaque for James Gillespie’s asap.

If only we didn’t have a Minister for Culture, Tourism and External Affairs but, like other sophisticated countries, simply a Minister for the Arts. Then we might be in with a chance to be sophisticated, ourselves, about cultural matters and literary excellence. But what chance do we have of a Muriel Spark blue plaque – let alone a properly educated populace that knows about novels like “Loitering with Intent” and “The Mandelbaum Gate”, along with the more famous “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie” – when the person in control of arts funding brings ideas of “culture”, as it’s always broadly referred to by Fiona Hyslop, into a portfolio that includes tourism? How can one seriously discuss the benefits of literature or painting or theatre or music when arts funding is tied up with the movie business and television, which in turn are bundled up with sport and general entertainment? Then, as if that were not bad enough, the whole package is wrapped up with a tartan ribbon and presented as an idea of Scotland in the minds of international travellers, so we are constantly pitching a skewed version of our real selves to the global marketplace.

There’s nothing of the “Arts” about any of this. Indeed when Hyslop gave her platform talk about the “Development of a Cultural Strategy” at the Glasgow Women’s Library back in the summer of this past year, the word “arts” wasn’t even in the title of the discussion. Culture was the word she kept using all that time. “We now have an opportunity to take stock, to bring our different views together,” is what she said then, which sounded relaxed enough, perhaps, and congenial, until you start to realise the impetus behind that kind of vocabulary. “Now is the time to reimagine how we think about culture in our country,” she said. “The strategy will be a vision for the country and to purpose priorities and partnerships.“

Purpose. Strategy. Priorities. These are actually quite creepy words that have less to do with intellectual or imaginative vision than they have with a centralising vision that is predetermined and political. For culture isn’t something one “does” or “develops”. Culture is the effect, the result of certain kinds of activities, not the means of production. Artists are the means. People like Muriel Spark with her Miss Jean Brodie. The creme de la creme de la creme de la creme that comes after the ideas writers and painters and musicians and intellectuals have – that’s what we need to skim off and use. Art first. Politics second. For there’s no richness in party strategies, only a lot of talk.