Muriel Spark, one of Scotland's most celebrated authors, might never have written a novel had it not been for one her friends who thought she should give it a try
IT WAS a weekday lunchtime in a smoky pub in London's Crown Passage. The year was 1952 and Tony Strachan, a young author who had recently taken a job at the publishing house Falcon Press in order to make ends meet, was having lunch with the office secretary. At the age of 34 she was, says Strachan, " a plump, amiable young Scottish woman". And one day, over toad-in-the hole at 1s/9d, she confided in him a shocking story about her ex-husband in Rhodesia.
"She told me that he had gone completely bonkers and produced this revolver and held her up for 19 minutes," he says, the memory of that day more than half a century ago still fresh in his mind. "As she was telling me this I was thinking, 'Well, then the police must have arrived,' but no, then he pulled the trigger and shot her in the foot. Most people don't know that about Muriel Spark."
Since the first days of their friendship nearly 60 years ago, Strachan has held his secrets of Spark close. Now aged 90 and living in Vancouver, he has chosen at last to talk publicly of his relationship with perhaps the greatest Scottish writer of the 20th century in order to "put the record straight" about the events surrounding Spark's transformation from unknown secretary to world-renowned novelist.
In 2008 he sold a collection of almost 60 letters, written to him by Spark over the course of 53 years – right up until she died in 2006, – to the National Library of Scotland (NLS), to which Spark herself sold her personal archive before her death. He has also written a memoir, Muriel And Me, which charts the course of a friendship that was, for the last 40 years of Spark's life, conducted by post. It too is held by the NLS. They are over the moon with the acquisition.
Sally Harrower, NLS's manuscripts curator, says: "The National Library of Scotland owns the Muriel Spark archive, and it is a collection that attracts researchers from around the world. The Library is always keen to add material relating to Dame Muriel to its collections, and was delighted to have the opportunity to buy Mr Strachan's Spark papers.
"The file of affectionate letters and cards chart a lifelong friendship with the man she credits, in her autobiography Curriculum Vitae, with begging her 'to give up working on literary criticism and biographies'."
Their friendship was unique, not least because so much of it was conducted on paper. "We last met in New York in 1965," Strachan says. "From then on our friendship was by letter only. But strangely enough we became closer in spirit than we had been in person."
The letters present an intimate portrait of Spark as she was with those closest to her. She talks earnestly about summers in Tuscany, where she lived for more than 20 years with her long-term companion, the artist Penelope Jardine, as well as ambitious plans for tours of Europe when she was well into her eighties. She catalogues her health problems, from a broken spine to eye problems to arthritis, and includes general musings on life and writing, including her observations on being made OBE, and her thoughts on Graham Greene's funeral.
"I enjoyed her letters immensely," says Strachan. "I was aware she was a very busy lady, a very famous lady, but I was touched that she continued to take the time to write to me even when she was writing novels." Spark was famously private, but within the letters there are endearing snapshots of her domestic life that paint a different image to the stern, sometimes chilly exterior she presented to the public.
She writes about having a suit of pyjamas with the words "happy moments" on them, caring lovingly for her three indoor and six outdoor cats, and how she could never again live in the UK thanks to the poor food and the general dreariness. There are even hand-drawn cards, sketched by Jardine, depicting their life together in Tuscany.
When Spark first clapped eyes on Strachan in 1952 it was he, rather than her, who was the established writer. A Second World War soldier, originally from Leicestershire, who had spent five years in a German PoW camp (his war diaries are in the Imperial War Museum in London), he had filled the seven years since the war by writing and publishing five novels. He had taken a job at Falcon Press, a young, up-and-coming London publishing house at the time, as export manager.
One of the first people he met was Spark. "She happened to be sitting in the room of the literary editor, who was interviewing me when I came in for the job. So when I got it, she and I became friends. She was always incredibly nice to me." The two would go for lunch together and talk about writing. There was never, Strachan emphasises, "anything romantic about it" – he had been recently married to a chorus-line girl from the London Palladium, and Spark was in a complex relationship with the writer Derek Stanford.
"We talked about writing a lot, she was interested because I was already a published novelist at that time, and she wasn't. She had won the Observer Christmas Short Story competition in 1951 and that was it."
Strachan thought her writing deserved more attention, and in 1954 he approached Alan Maclean, then a literary editor at Macmillan, and suggested that he publish a book of Spark's short stories.
"She hadn't published enough in those days, and one of the stories seemed to be becoming novel length. It eventually became her first novel, The Comforters."
This was not mentioned in the biography of Spark published in 2009 by Martin Stannard, a book Spark co-operated with but which, as revealed in some of her final letters to Strachan, she was becoming increasingly concerned about in the months leading up to her death.
In her own autobiography, Curriculum Vitae, she writes of Strachan's hand in her career: "Tony was right. He positively nagged me about the waste of my talent, and in fact, only a few years later, it was Tony Strachan who persuaded Macmillan and their editor, Alan Maclean, to commission a novel from me."
She returns to the subject again in some of her final letters to Strachan, insisting that she wants the truth to be known about his role in her creation as a novelist. Although Strachan demurs at the suggestion, it is highly possible that without his intervention, she would never have written a novel in the first place.
"I don't want to be presumptious," he says. "I suppose if it hadn't been for me there wouldn't be a Muriel Spark the novelist, because she always regarded herself, right to the very end, as primarily a poet. She wasn't really interested in fiction at all.
"I said to her if a novel isn't what you want to write, why did you write it, and she said, 'Because I find it easy.' I thought that was a very interesting thing to say, and I'm not sure it's a comment she's ever made to anyone else." He laughs. "It's rather demeaning to the medium, isn't it?"
But then Spark, perhaps one of Edinburgh's most famous daughters, was never the most normal of novelists. She married her first husband Sidney Oswald Spark in 1937 and escaped dreary Edinburgh for the hot sun of Rhodesia.
But her husband had kept a psychiatric illness hidden from her, and was prone to psychotic episodes, such as the one she described to Strachan, where he shot her, and she returned to the UK.
Leaving her son Robin with her parents in Edinburgh and moving to London, she pursued poetry writing, had tempestuous love affairs, and worked for the publishing house where she and Strachan first met.
By the time the pair met for the final time, in New York in 1965, Strachan had been living in the US for some years. He later moved to Canada, where he worked as a writer and publisher until he retired. By then Spark was a successful novelist – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie having been published four years earlier, and confessed when they met that she was now earning over $1 million a year.
"She was very kind to me," he says. "I was looking for a job and I hadn't got any money and she just gave me a cheque."
Spark underwent an overhaul in New York - splashing out on a $1200 dress from Christian Dior, going, she told Strachan, "mad about makeup", buying half a racehorse and hinting at an affair with a much younger man, even asking Strachan, after revealing his age, "do you think that's too young?"
"She was very plucky," he says. "She had a lot of guts, probably a bit too much sometimes." He recalls in his memoir seeing her go through a breakdown in the early 1950s after the breakup of her relationship with Stanford. Spark was taking Dexedrine, an amphetamine, at the time, and eventually ended up spending some time at a Carmelite nunnery where she considered becoming a nun. Strachan remembers seeing her in the street and hardly recognising her because she had lost so much weight.
"We went to the pub and she was terribly shaky. But she managed to throw it off eventually."
He says she was not a conventional woman: "She was very unusual. She wasn't an ordinary person at all."
Perhaps the most poignant of the letters in the collection is the last one, written just four days before Spark died. It is one of the last she ever wrote. She was in hospital in Florence and too ill to write it herself, and so dictated it to Jardine instead, adding a wavery signature at the end.
In it she says she is going to forget the biography that was being written about her, as it is weighing too much on her mind, and adds that she is feeling better. In a moving postscript, she asks Strachan not to tell anyone she is in hospital because she plans on being out very soon.
"She was always incredibly nice to me," Strachan says. "In over 50 years she never said a nasty word.
"Someone wrote once that Muriel Spark stubbed out friendships as though she was stubbing out a cigarette. Well, she never stubbed me out."Factfile
• MURIEL Spark, born in Edinburgh in 1918, was an award-winning novelist whose most celebrated works include The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and A Far Cry From Kensington (1988).
• Educated at James Gillespie's High School for Girls in Edinburgh, Spark moved to Rhodesia with her husband in 1937. On discovering her husband had manic depression she left her him and son Robin behind, and returned to the UK in 1944 to work in intelligence for the rest of the Second World War.
• Spark began writing after the war and In 1947 became editor of the Poetry Review. However, she considered her conversion to Roman Catholicism (she had a Jewish father) in 1954 as crucial to her writing, saying that it was then that she was "able to see human existence as a whole, as a novelist needs to do".
• Her first novel The Comforters (1957) contained several references to her conversion. A number of her novels were made into films and television serials including The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie which used her time at James Gillespie's High School as a model for the Marcia Blaine School in the novel.
• She wrote 21 novels, collections of short stories, criticism and poetry.
• In the early 1970s she moved to Tuscany with her friend, the artist and sculptor Penelope Jardine, to whom she left her entire estate.
• The writer was made Dame of the British Empire in 1993 and Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1996. She died in Florence in April 2006.