Because, of course, we expect politicians to be clever … in that wily way they need to be quick off the mark, fast thinking and all of that. But we don’t necessarily expect them to be really clever. To show sensitivity, grace, intellectual probity and introspection, self-effacement andquestioning alongside moral and ethical rigour and independence of mind.
No. Those qualities have been in such short supply in our governmental representatives that we may be forgiven for believing they might ever have been part of public life in the first place. In America, for a saddeningly short length of office, it seems, in the history of recent American politics, there was Barack Obama and his open-minded – poetic, we might say – sensibility, reaching out to intellectuals and artists and thinkers to provide a wider context for his political deliberations. But he’s gone now. And here in Scotland it’s been a long time since we buried John Smith and Donald Dewar and farewelled the kind of political figure who had a view of our country that took in a landscape varied not only in geography, but in its great variation of economic and social requirement that is expressed subtly and yet so differently from Cape Wrath to the Borders. For sure it seems like a lost era when we might have had anyone sitting in a governmental seat with anything more than an eye for the polls and the next election.
But then, there was Nicola Sturgeon at the Usher Hall reading from a Muriel Spark novel. And yes, it was THE Muriel Spark novel that everyone knows, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, so perhaps no surprises there. But she was also talking about her favourite novel, The Driver’s Seat, and about how she loved all of Spark’s novels, had been reading them since she was a teenager and was re-reading them now.
“Even now, almost 30 years since I first read it, I’m not sure I fully understand it,” she said about The Driver’s Seat.
“It still provides the curious mind with endless potential for interpretation as well as great enjoyment – truly the mark of a literary phenomenen. Faith – very often through the eyes of the convert – mortality, sanity and insanity, reality and illusion. These are just some of the themes that recur time and again throughout her work.”
She was speaking to a sold-out audience who’d come together at a literary event organised by critics and writers Alan Taylor and Rosemary Goring to celebrate the centenary of the author’s birth.
She talked about Memento Mori, which was “a glorious reminder of Spark’s ability to be hilariously comical, usually in a deadpan, dare I say it, quite Edinburgh way, and also deeply dark, very often on the same page”.
She talked about the political savvy of Spark’s novels – “The Abbess of Crewe – perhaps the best political novel I have ever read” – and about the lyrical quality of Spark’s prose, its “beauty and craftsmanship”.
And then she read, she read … beautifully. For she read as someone who really did appreciate all those things she’d been talking about. About the particular quality of Spark’s writing, a sort of sentence by sentence articulation of social and linguistic awareness and of deep thoughtfulness and slanted wit. She read as someone who knew how dangerous it was to enter into the world of a Muriel Spark novel because all is allusive there, and amoral and shifting, and nothing is certain between its covers and everything is up for grabs.
She read the section from the book where Jean Brodie is counselling her young charges in the art of staying quiet. You don’t always need to answer the questions put to you, girls, the teacher says to them, and as Nicola Sturgeon read the words she looked up from the page, knowingly, at us, the audience, and smiled. Silence can be golden, she read on, catching our eye again, and everyone laughed.
She went on to refer to the uncertainties of the novels, their deep attraction, and she mentioned another writer she loves, Ali Smith, who had also written about Spark, and she finished with a remark about Spark’s Scottishness, despite all her years away. “I am Scottish by formation,” she reminded us Spark had once said. And all this, yes. Clever. And not just because it was a smart thing to do. Literary people, people in the arts – certainly on the whole – are Yes voters, has been my experience, and I often feel pretty isolated on that front, when political issues come up in the midst of all of us getting together to talk about our books and writing. And certainly a good number of people on the stage with the First Minister last week would not have needed persuading that she would have something interesting to say about one of Scotland’s foremost novelists. But those sitting in the red velvet seats of one of Edinburgh’s most beautiful centres of high cultural life might well have. And as I looked around me I could see how Sturgeon’s intelligence and sense of the occasion was moving hearts and minds all through the Hall.
Her reading made me believe that she really did know and love all the novels, as she said she did. Her participation in an event that many of her supporters would agree was hardly speaking to her core constituency, that she would
prioritise the intellectual over the political that way, now makes me want to know: What else does Nicola Sturgeon read when she reads literature? It makes me want to write a letter to Holyrood and ask if I can come for a visit to talk about books and ideas. For a politician who reads, who is unaplogetic about their intellectual reach and ability, this is a politician we all need to have a chat with. The kind who makes argument and debate possible, and belief that we really can frame our country’s complex needs according to its many borders and sense of selves. “Words are ideas,” Muriel Spark wrote. Change starts there.