The prime of prizewinner Muriel Spark

David Lister

Arts News Editor

The novelist Dame Muriel Spark, 79, won a pounds 40,000 lifetime achievement award yesterday and said she would be giving pounds 10,000 to the Edinburgh school that inspired her classic novel, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie.

The rest she would use to buy "a lovely, new, suitable motorcar which I hope will bear me in and out of our famous tunnel with ever more ease and pleasure."

Travel, she said in her accept-ance speech, was the lifeblood of literature. "We have to find at first hand how other people live and die, what they say, how they smell, how they are made. I recommend travel to young authors. And also to authors not so young."

The British Literature Prize, awarded every two years by the Arts Council and funded by the David Cohen Family Charitable Trust, is designed to recognise a lifetime's achievement to a living British writer. The winner is given pounds 30,000 plus a further pounds 10,000 to commission work which will encourage young writers and readers.

The prize was set up by the Arts Council in conjunction with David Cohen, a doctor and arts benefactor. The judging panel solicits views from the public before making a decision.

Dame Muriel has written novels, plays, poems, children's stories and biographies. But her name remains most clearly associated with her 1961 novel, The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie, about an Edinburgh schoolteacher who exercises a powerful and dangerous influence over her charges. It was memorably adapted into a film starring Maggie Smith.

Announcing that she would be giving pounds 10,000 to her former school, James Gillespie's High School in Edinburgh, Dame Muriel said: "It is a wonderful opportunity to be able to present a gift for cultural activities to James Gillespie's High School. I have a particular fondness for the school and I feel very strongly that young people should be encouraged to explore their creative talents. I hope this award will enable some of the pupils to do exactly that.

"I think I am right in saying that James Gillespie's School was founded exactly 200 years ago, in 1797, under the will of a prosperous snuff merchant, James Gillespie himself. I attended the school for 12 years and celebrated this important fact in my novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie."

Receiving the prize at a reception in London last night, Dame Muriel added: "The stated purpose of this award 'for a lifetime's achievement' is one that greatly appeals to me, for I have dedicated a lifetime to the art of letters and to perfect-ing it to the utmost of my talents and capacities."

She reminisced on her first literary effort, aged nine, a poem intended, she said, "as an improvement on Robert Browning's The Pied Piper Of Hamlin. My elders and teachers were somewhat intrigued by this ruthless rewriting of the 'Piper Pied' as I called him, so as to rhyme with 'he cried'. And so, where angels feared to tread I continued to rush in with my improvements on many such examples of English literature."

Professor Andrew Motion, chairman of the judges, said: "This year's winner will be known to almost everyone in the country; her writing has become a part of our life. Yet one of her greatest gifts is to make the things we know seem new and strange and wonderful."

Colin Finlayson, headteach-er at the school, said: "We are delighted to be honoured in this way by Muriel Spark. Her books have been of particular literary importance to generations of schoolchildren and I'm sure they will continue to be.

The previous two winners of the prize, established in 1993, were playwright Harold Pinter and novelist VS Naipaul.

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