A week in books

In jail, they call it gate fever - the reckless delirium that overtakes inmates as their release date nears. On Wednesday night, I caught a trace of it in Virginia Bottomley's manner as the Heritage Secretary handed Dame Muriel Spark the third David Cohen Prize (worth pounds 40,000 in all) for a lifetime's achievement in British literature. Quoting Miss Jean Brodie back at her creator, the minister defined education as "a leading out of what is already there in the pupil's soul". Now that, as grizzled veterans of the Sixties will know, sums up the core of the "progressive" child-centred teaching that Mrs Bottomley's colleagues have tried for nigh on 18 years to expunge from our classrooms. Collective responsibility? No thanks. As Miss Jean once reminded her charges, "Cleopatra knew nothing of the team spirit" - not a sentiment we'll find among the coming manifesto bromides.

First awarded in 1993, the biennial Cohen prize already has a splendid record of honouring the Awkward Squad. The initial winner, Sir Vidia Naipaul, kept up his reputation as an Olympic-standard grouch with some apres-moi- le-deluge thoughts about the death of the novel. In 1995, Harold Pinter refrained from cursing US foreign policy in the atrium of Coutts Bank, but he did chill the blood with some gruesome passages from Webster's plays. Pinter was paying tribute to his English master at Hackney Downs - a theme pursued by Dame Muriel when she gave the pounds 10,000 portion of the prize reserved for a beneficiary selected by the winner to arts projects at her alma mater, James Gillespie's High School in Edinburgh.

It was there, 70 years ago, that the nine-year-old Muriel Camberg wrote what she calls "an intended improvement" of Browning's "Pied Piper of Hamelin". Browning's little rival clearly foreshadowed the fearless writer who, in a recent TV profile, scorned the "timid' authors of her age. In the 40 years since she published The Comforters, she has kept timidity at bay with one succinct and stringent fable of spiritual or social life after another. Because she has no time for English sentiment, and shuns the picturesque detail of character and place that many readers enjoy, Spark can strike the unconverted as a dry and cold contriver of intellectual puzzles. Yet it is just this theologically inclined asperity that makes her voice so precious and unique.

An impatience with Anglo-Saxon platitudes began early. In the postwar years, the penniless young writer worked for the conceited nonetities of the Poetry Society (Now, I'm glad to say, a much saner place.) There she had a memorable run-in with the batty Marie Stopes - birth-control pioneer and dreadful poet. Superbly comic echoes of that period surface in her memoir Curriculum Vitae and in the 1980s novels Loitering With Intent and A Far Cry from Kensington.

In her brisk, bracing tragicomedies, poky offices and bedsits (or the odd Tuscan villa) act as backdrop for a metaphysical drama that - in the words of Andrew Motion, who chaired the judging panel - "transfigures the commonplace and makes what is ordinary marvellous or sinister or strange". As Ben Okri, another judge, said afterwards, "It's time to bring elegant seriousness back into fashion". Reading Spark would be a painless way to manage that - and a few ousted politicians may have some time on their hands to do so pretty soon.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Dunne, played by Ben Affleck, finds himself at the centre of a media storm when his wife is reported missing and assumed dead

film
Arts and Entertainment
Lindsay Lohan made her West End debut earlier this week in 'Speed-the-Plow'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Artist Nathan Sawaya stands with his sculpture 'Yellow' at the Art of Brick Exhibition

art
Arts and Entertainment
'Strictly Come Dancing' attracted 6.53 million viewers on Friday
tv
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant plays Detective Emmett Carver in the US version on Broadchurch

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor goes undercover at Coal Hill School in 'The Caretaker'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ni , Rock of Rah, Vanuatu: The Ni live on one of the smallest islands of Vanuatu; Nelson flew five hours from Sydney to capture the 'isolation forged by their remoteness'
photographyJimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style
Arts and Entertainment
David Byrne
musicDavid Byrne describes how the notorious First Lady's high life dazzled him out of a career low
Arts and Entertainment
Sergeant pfeffer: Beatles in 1963
booksA song-by-song survey of the Beatles’ lyrics
Arts and Entertainment
music'I didn't even know who I was'
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl was left in a conundrum with too much talent and too few seats during the six-chair challenge stage
tvReview: It was tension central at boot camp as the ex-Girls Aloud singer whittled down the hopefuls
Arts and Entertainment
Kalen Hollomon's Anna Wintour collage

art
Arts and Entertainment

TV Grace Dent on TV
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

music
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer is believed to be playing a zombie wife in Patient Zero

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Gatiss says Benedict Cumberbatch oozes sex appeal with his 'Byronic looks' and Sherlock coat
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Clothing items bearing the badge have become popular among music aficionados
musicAuthorities rule 'clenched fist' logo cannot be copyrighted
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson will star in Seth MacFarlane's highly-anticipated Ted 2

film
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in 'Gone Girl'

film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
    Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

    Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

    Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
    Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

    Education, education, education

    TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
    It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

    It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

    So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
    This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

    Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

    Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
    We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

    Inside the E15 'occupation'

    We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

    Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

    The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
    Witches: A history of misogyny

    Witches: A history of misogyny

    The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
    Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Meet the most powerful woman in US television

    Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
    'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

    Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style