I’m on the back foot, caught short, running out of time. It’s not the bathroom I’m in need of – not that kind of caught short. I need to read a book by 7pm this evening when the first gathering of my new book group is scheduled. (Question to self: why are you writing this when you should scurry off and read?) I suppose it’s not as urgent as it sounds: the novel is slim and I have read almost half of it. Being Muriel Spark’s centenary year, and based – as I am – in Edinburgh, we have chosen her Edinburgh classic, ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.’ Having read half of it, I an utterly charmed by her. Granted, she may have a few personality flaws – like her crush on Mussolini. It is 1936, though, and I’m assuming she did not yet have a rounded view of the dictator. After all, just like we are reminded at the end of the film, ‘Some Like It Hot’, when Tony Curtis (Jerry) admits to his millionaire fiancé that he is, in fact, a man, “nobody’s prefect.” Miss Brodie’s imperfect but appealing demeanour, her disregard for conventional education of the day, what she prioritises as an essential curriculum, all make me laugh. What 12 year old girl wouldn’t want to be taught about, “the advantages to the skin of cleansing cream and witch-hazel over honest soap and water; the interior decoration of the London house of the author of Winnie The Pooh; the love lives of Charlotte Brontë and of Miss Brodie herself”? I fancy, too, that Muriel Spark fell in love with creating the unique schoolteacher as gives her eponymous heroine some of the most marvellous lines, such as, “It is well, when in difficulties, to never say a word, neither black nor white. Speech is silver, but silence is gold.” Ironic from the very lady who has an opinion of everything, unguarded opinions she eloquently expresses.
Nonetheless, I linger over her statement on silence as gold, as there is much wisdom in it. Knowing when to pipe down and knowing when to speak up can be a lifelong lesson in self-awareness. I imagine there is often a lot less value in what we have to say then we think there is, especially if the words are harsh or negative. As my mother-in-law likes to say (and she lives it too): “if you can’t say something nice about someone, say nothing at all.” Then there is the rather charming and self-deprecating statement attributed to Dennis Thatcher – the wallflower, famously quiet husband of the Iron Lady – who wittily said of himself: “Better keep your mouth shut and be thought a fool than open it and remove all doubt.”
With all of this in mind, I’m setting forth into a quiet day: reading, reflecting and revelling in the genial Miss Brodie. I’m aware that it is a luxury for many to sit in a chair and read quietly for a few hours, but quietude is, I am sure, a core human need. As much as we need food and water to sustain us, so too must we to hide away from the chatter and noise of the world from time to time, seek out a well of quiet and stillness. In Northern Ireland parlance, the request for silence might be disguised with the words, “would you ever give my head peace” – a rather stern request to desist from talking. Or, as I used to say in England (and nobody understood me), “I just need a moment to get my head showered”, meaning that I needed a little time out for some silence some peace and some quiet. I have recently come across some words from Frances J. Roberts: “Silence will speak more to you in a day than the world of voices can teach you in a lifetime. Find silence. Find solitude – and having discovered her riches, bind her to your heart.”