The homecoming of Dame Muriel Spark, a writer in her prime

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The Independent Culture

She may be a little deaf, and kneeling for prayers in the Catholic church may now be a tricky manoeuvre, but no one thought Scotland's greatest living writer, Dame Muriel Spark, was in anything but her prime yesterday when she made an emotional return to Edinburgh, her home town.

She may be a little deaf, and kneeling for prayers in the Catholic church may now be a tricky manoeuvre, but no one thought Scotland's greatest living writer, Dame Muriel Spark, was in anything but her prime yesterday when she made an emotional return to Edinburgh, her home town.

At the age of 86, appearances by the creator of Miss Jean Brodie - the teacher immortalised on screen by Maggie Smith - are rare, and rarer still in Scotland, a place she adores but whose weather she does not.

The Book Festival has invited her every year since it began; and she agreed this year to take pride of place at its 21st birthday celebrations. The session proved to be one of the hottest tickets in town, selling out within two hours. The queue for returns began before breakfast.

It was indisputably "an event". The fortunate 580 fans who secured their places, including such writers as Ian Rankin, were treated to flashes of Dame Muriel's wit and insights into her fetishistic working practices, writing in notebooks purchased in bulk from an Edinburgh store.

They saw her presented with the inaugural Edinburgh International Book Festival Enlightenment Award - a pair of bookends covered in the titles of her works - for her contribution to world literature.

But perhaps most touchingly, they heard the author read from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie - even though, as she joked ruefully, there were many who believed Maggie Smith wrote its most famous lines. The author admitted it was frustrating that the book, published in 1961, overshadowed her other works, but she knew it was what the audience wanted to hear.

"She [Miss Jean Brodie] is very much associated with Edinburgh and for me it's wonderful to be here," she said. "I consider it my home."

Dame Muriel was born in 1918 and spent the first 19 years of her life in Edinburgh, where her father was born. She left to get married and live in Africa, though the marriage was soon dissolved. When she returned to Britain, she worked for the Foreign Office in London and achieved her first break at the age of 33 when she won a newspaper short story competition. She has lived for the past 30 years in Tuscany. She told her audience: "I think you have to travel otherwise you don't see things in a comparative enough light."

Despite originally claiming that the recently published Finishing School was probably her farewell to the novel, Dame Muriel revealed that she had taken up the challenge of a new one. "I just got lonely without a novel on the desk, so I started another. I can't really not write a novel." Her fans were delighted to hear it.

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