Sometimes, when I write, the words I choose and the connections I make can jump about in unexpected directions; by which I mean, unexpected for me. Lately I have been playing a game, trying to use each letter of the alphabet in the first letter of each blog title. I know it is a daft and pointless exercise, but it’s just a little notion I took, it burrowed and set up home in my head. Three letters remained unused in my meaningless pursuit: ‘Q’, ‘X’ and ‘Z’. ‘Zeal’ shouted at me from nowhere, and I wrote it down. And there it sat on the electronic page. For weeks. With no further words under it. As the New Year approached, I began to think about making resolutions, achieving changes, creating new habits and the level of zeal this would require of me. Alright – I thought – maybe that’s what I can write about: that the level of success in adhering to one’s New Year’s resolutions is directly linked to the intensity of one’s zeal. It was to be a motivational blog on zeal: the need to create fervour for a cause, passion for change, keen desire and eager enthusiasm for betterment, diligence for one’s chosen project. It is such a daunting word, though, embarrassingly energetic, yet pitted with the potential for failure and exhaustion. Anyone’s zeal, I feel, is almost destined to run out of steam, perhaps (bizarrely) because it is an anagram of its nemesis, ‘laze’! No, I decided I would drop the sermon on zeal, both on the basis that there might be something obsessive or fanatical about it, but also because I simply felt I didn’t possess sufficient zeal in order to wax lyrical about it.
Things changed yesterday, though, when instead of going to the Central Library on George IV Bridge (my usual haunt), I wandered into the National Library just across the road. An exhibition, dedicated to the life and work of Muriel Spark, literary daughter of Edinburgh, was showing. Born almost 100 years ago, on February 1st 1918, she was a sparky genius by nature long before she adopted the sparky name via one short-lived marriage. Spark was educated at James Gillespie’s High School, just off the Meadows in the south of the city, the same school my 12 year-old niece, K., attends, eighty eight years later. My first impression on Spark from the exhibition was that of her prodigious output; she was zealous and did not rest. Watching a short film of an interview with her from 1971, her zeal for writing is immediately apparent. She preferred to write with cheap biro pens, writing her literature longhand in the same notebooks all of her life – procured always from James Thin Stationers on the South Bridge (now Blackwells Bookshop). No matter where she lived in the world (Rhodesia, London New York, Italy) she would send off to James Thin for the notebooks, which she elevated to almost superstitious status. I loved her consistency, her intensity, her zeal in penning 22 novels – and that is before one even counts her poetry and reviews.
Towards the end of the exhibition I saw a copy of a poem the young Muriel Spark (née Camberg) had written when she was aged just 12 years.
‘To Everybody’, by Muriel Camberg (Spark)
“The Artist has canvas,
The Dreamer has dreams,
A book is the Scholar’s possession.
A viol, and organ,
A fiddle, or harp,
Are the things which delight a Musician.
The Scribe he has offices
Filled full with pens
And sits and writes all the day through,
But I put zeal and zest
In the things I love best,
‘Tis a verse which I give up to you.”
Prescient words from a child. Years later, in her novel, ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, she wrote, “One’s prime is elusive. Be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur.” This line was given to the eponymous character, said to have been modelled on a Miss Kay who taught her at James Gillespie’s. Far be it from me to correct Ms. Spark, but it seems to me that she herself was in her prime for all of her life. I’m going to be forward enough, therefore, to suggest alternative words: be on the alert to recognize your prime as it is ever-present, although changing and transforming at all stages of your life.