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Muriel Spark

Duration:
45 minutes
First broadcast:
Sunday 06 January 2002

A series in which John Tusa, managing director of the Barbican Centre, talks to leading creative figures about their work. His guest this week is writer Muriel Spark.

  • Transcript of the John Tusa Interview with Muriel Spark

    Few novelists are identified by popular catch-phrases from their writing. It's a fair bet that of the countless people who talk of Girls of Slender Means, A Far Cry from Kensington, the Ballad of Peckham Rye, or undoubtedly most often, the Crème de la Crème , few people know that they're echoing a line, a title or a catchphrase from a novel by Muriel Spark . Her titles, her subjects, her characters have an insinuating quality. Her prose, which she insists is really poetry, is spare, lean, economical. Muriel Spark's observations are sharp, often lethal. It's been said that the slivers of glass that should reside in any writer's heart are pretty large ones in her case. She published her first novel when she was 39 - a late developer, though her apprenticeship in reviewing, lit crit, editing, jobbing journalism and running the faction-ridden Poetry Society was classic grub-street. She was poor. She was often hungry. But the experience of falling ill and suffering hallucinations after taking slimming tablets produced her first novel, The Comforters. It was a huge success. The shape of things to come, her editor said to her. He was right; that was a turning-point. The other was Muriel Spark's conversion to Catholicism in 1954, for she is a Catholic writer, not in the mawkish, religiose sense but in the sense that she and her characters carry with them a strong sense of the fact that everything matters, but, as she puts it, nothing matters more than our humanity. Now a grand lady of English letters, Dame Muriel Spark lives in Tuscany in a former rectory. She writes intensively, and judging by her last novel, Aiding and Abetting, about Lord Lucan, she writes without diminished sense of narrative ingenuity or moral complexity.
    ____________________________________________________

    Now, you've written in detail about your childhood in modest circumstances in Edinburgh . What stands out from that is your awareness of life in the family household. You were never kept out of the adults' way, were you?

    No, never kept out of their way, and nothing was censored. I was allowed to read anything. They didn't seem to realise that one shouldn't read something. Our paper was the News of the World which was a real scandal sheet in those days - probably still is, I haven't seen it lately. But I used to read the News of the World and get all the scandal, and understand everything. I wasn't kept out of family life at all.

    And you relished observing people from a very early age, didn't you?

    Oh yes, I used to be a people-watcher, very much.

    Your parents used to give people nicknames, didn't they? They always used to talk about them once they'd left the house.

    Once they'd left the house they would talk about them, yes, in front of us. Absolutely hypocrisy. But there it was.

    Were they bitchy, malicious about the people who'd just been in the house?

    Yes, sometimes, and sometimes not. My mother was always amiable to everybody, mostly, and so was my father. He was very amused by her and her nick-names, and everything. She was the one who was more amusing.

    And you... well, you were part of this, you must have picked this up. I mean...

    I picked it up but I didn't copy it really. I didn't quite like it.

    Even at that age, you didn't quite like it?

    Yes, by the time I went to school I didn't quite like it.

    And you also said that you were an avid listener. You were listening to what - to people's voices, to their remarks, their turn of phrase?

    I was listening to words, voices, remarks and the nuance, and various levels of - not levels of meaning in a more sophisticated sense but in a quite elementary sense.

    I mean, looking back on it now, do you think that those were important parts of the things which either made you a writer or enabled you to be a writer?

    Oh, yes. Yes. The first things I wrote about were my brother and my mother, and my father... I wrote about them, made up poems, made up stories. Then I wrote about the school.... and my first writings about the teacher who later became Miss Brodie ... I wrote about her. We were given to write about how we spent our summer holidays, but I wrote about how she spent her summer holidays instead. It seemed more fascinating.

    And then this continued rather late after you left school. You got your first job. You went to that genteel Princes Street outfitters, William Small. And there again, what did you like about the characters there? This was a different cross-section of life.

    There was an elderly man, Mr Small, the owner, and he would confide in me and talk to me and ask my advice about what he should wear, and his shirts, and various things like that. And his son would dash in every now and again and play the piano; there was a piano in his office. I rather enjoyed that job.

    And watching the people, the Edinburgh gentry?

    I didn't get to see a great deal of that because I was in his office right at the top of the building with a wonderful view of Princes Street and of the gardens. He gave me more money to stay on, sort of thing, when I thought I might get a more interesting [laughs] job.

    Now, you had this awareness of people and tricks of character. You couldn't go to university because your parents...

    We were too poor, yes.

    And in any case, I think you didn't want to go to university because you thought the girls were so dull and charmless.

    They were very dull. At that time, the girls who went to university looked as if they'd just put on a dark-blue dress and left it at that for the whole winter. They were so dreary. And I liked to look nice and go dancing too, and things like that. And they didn't look as if they ever did any of these things. I thought them very dreary. And also when I'd talk to university people, people who really I might have got something out of, I thought them dreary too.

    Do you still think them dreary?

    Just occasionally I do, yes.

    Now, instead of going to university you went to this précis-writing course at Heriot-Watt. What on earth made you think that précis writing was going to be useful or interesting?

    Well, I always liked to keep it short, and I thought probably I would get some ideas how to, to express myself as briefly as possible. It was a, a challenge. I just did enjoy that course, very much.

    Where do you think the idea to be economical in your writing came from, because usually adolescents and late adolescents think they have to write in a great overblown, splurgey way, don't they?

    Yes. No, I always wanted... I don't know, I think that was built in, a built in thing with me; I always wanted to keep it short and pithy. And anything I said, I wanted to make it short.

    Surprisingly you've also, elsewhere, put in a good word for what you call managerial speech - this is when you were doing a job where managerial speech was necessary - because you thought that they also stuck to the point.

    Yes, I like business speech. I often listened to it for that very purpose, to see how they stuck to the point and they were focused - they targeted a subject instead of spreading themselves all over the place with sub-clauses and that sort of thing.

    Do you always strike out a sub-clause in the unlikely event that one should crop up in your writing?

    No, I don't strike out much. I write on.

    Even if it's an errant sub-clause?

    I don't do that. I do one draft. I do the editing in my head first and... Maybe it's a desire to save paper, I don't know [laughs], subconsciously.

    Let's get on to that in a moment. I want to talk about the emphasis I think you've always put on experience and the search for experience and the need to have experience. I mean, you left Edinburgh because you wanted different experience, didn't you?

    I left Edinburgh to get married. I went to Africa, where my fiancée was already in Zimbabwe - it was then Southern Rhodesia . And I went there really to get married... and also I had the happy prospect of not having to do housework, I was told. And really I often wonder if that was the only thing, because when I got there it wasn't long before I didn't like my husband. However, I had to stay there for quite a time because war broke out.

    But were you looking for experience? I mean, somewhere else you've said that actually the reason you got married to your husband was that you wanted sex.

    Yes.

    Now, that's a... God knows that's a kind of experience.

    Yes, the only way a girl could - a respectable girl - could have sex, in those days.

    But were you also looking for something which wasn't Edinburgh life, something which brought you in touch with the world outside?

    Oh yes. I wanted... I wanted to go abroad in any case. I would have gone to Paris , New York . I would have gone there if I hadn't gone to Southern Rhodesia, to Africa . I didn't intend to stay there.

    But is the search for experience something that's been a constant theme in your life? The need to have things that you've lived through?

    Yes I've always looked for experience when I've got bored or anything, in any situation. I've very often had to put up with a lot of boredom, for jobs and things like that. But I've found more and more as time goes on that experience comes to me... If I want... If I have an idea and want to experience something connected with it, it somehow happens - it's like a magnet. One is looking for just that, and one is a magnet for experience when one has an idea fixed for writing.

    That itself has been a constant experience in your life. That is how ideas and experience work together.

    For instance, I'm writing a novel at the moment called The Finishing School. Well, I always wanted to know what was in those enormous backpacks that young people wear - I wanted precisely to know. Well, I met someone in France just now who knew exactly that, who had to do with children, who knew exactly every item. And that I wouldn't have known if I hadn't been writing this particular book.

    And you feel that you couldn't have written about it unless you knew something as minutely detailed as what's in a backpacker's backpack?

    Yes. This woman, she told me what girls have, what boys have, and of different ages, and what they carry in their backpacks.

    After your period in Rhodesia ... well, you left Rhodesia as quickly as you could during the war because you said you wanted the experience of being in Britain in wartime. Now, what did you think you were going to find - what were you looking for?

    Well, I wanted to experience wartime. I went first to Edinburgh to see my parents, naturally, after all those years. Nothing was going on there, so I came to London . There were some bombs, incendiary bombs and things like that, and I wasn't really particularly looking for that. I stayed in a club called the Helena Club, which is the background for The Girls of Slender Means, a book of mine. Then I had to apply for a job through a Labour Exchange as they called it in those days, and I was sent to the Foreign Office in the country, which was very much secluded from war... activities of war, but it was very much into the war because it was a secret radio station which was broadcasting a lot of lies to the Germans. As much lies mixed with truth; so very much like writing a novel. Something to make our stories plausible we had to mix... invent things.

    This was the one that was run by Sefton Delma, was it?

    Yes. With the idea of rather taking away the morale of ... demoralising the troops who were holding out in France - the Germans. We had Germans working with us who had ratted on their army, on their country, and they were a bit unhappy, but mostly they'd found justification for what they did because they were indignant with Hitler in some way. They were either communists or Counts or something like that.

    Did you enjoy that work?

    Oh, I loved it. I really loved it.

    What did you like about it?

    I liked the mystery, and the intelligence of everybody around me. It was a really intelligent outfit. I liked it very much.

    You see, I think most people wouldn't think of propaganda as having to be intelligent - that may just be a comment on the general level of propaganda. But why was this particular kind of propaganda intelligent?

    Because it had to be different from the usual.., the BBC were putting out plain propaganda, and this was called black propaganda because it was so demoralising and mixed with truth and really rather insidious.
    We said some nasty things, really nasty, but... it would have been a nasty job if it hadn't been wartime.

    You see, when you say that, what strikes me is that elsewhere you said how utterly important the truth is to you and especially the truth about yourself...

    Yes.

    ... and yet here you are saying how much you enjoyed working with people who were concocting ingenious lies?

    Yes, because we knew we were doing it. We were lying properly because we did know the truth. I think with a novel you have to... writing a novel you have to be quite aware that what you are writing is not at all true. Such a character did not cross the road at such a time. This is not true. A lot of people can't read novels from that point of view - they can't suspend disbelief and can't see that what your writing stands for, a kind of truth that you hope will emerge from it.

    Yes, so that... well, it's fabrication, the construction of events, that's fine. I mean, would you even say that there has to be a kind of psychological truth to the characters ?

    Oh yes. Yes, I would say so. One hopes so.


    So there's no contradiction between this comparatively brief period where you relished in the... relished the ingenuity of making stories up... and your commitment to the truth otherwise?

    Yes.

    You mentioned the hostel that you stayed in during the war. One of the things is that there are a lot of writers who when asked, how much of this has come from your life and they all shy away and say, good heavens no, there's nothing autobiographical. And you've always been absolutely open about it.

    Yes.

    Why is this? I mean, not just Girls Of Slender Means...

    Because I use the background but I invent a great deal. It's not the very fact, but it's the sort of thing. Two weeks ago I was at Norwich University giving a reading, and in Norwich among the people there - the audience - two women were at that hostel with me in the 40s. It was an amazing thing. I was amazed. And of course they recognised the place in my book but they knew it wasn't them.

    Did they think that they recognised some of the characters?

    I think they did, yes, but they recognised the characters as the sort of thing, not... rather than that person.

    Is that what you would want?

    Yes. It would be rather like taking an eye here and a nose there, as the police make an Identikit.

    And is this process of transforming your experience into fiction... is that semi-conscious, it's just going on the whole time until...

    It goes on the whole time while I'm writing a novel, but I exclude automatically - unconsciously I think - I exclude what is of no use to me, and take in what is of use, and write notes and write it down. I sometimes refer to notes, not always.

    And you yourself, crop up in your novels, in a form, somewhere...?

    I think I must crop up through every character in a way.

    Barbara Vaughan in The Mandelbaum Gate?

    Yes. I don't see where, otherwise, one's knowledge comes from. One has to feel things. And so I suppose one is in every character, a bit.

    But that particular one...

    Barbara Vaughan?

    ...yes, a Catholic convert, half-Jewish...

    Well, in fact I had somebody else in mind but it was a situation that I was interested in - half-Jewish is interesting, I think.

    Yes. Yes, well you say you are half-Jewish, because you are. Of course in strictly Orthodox circles you aren't half-Jewish because your father was a Jew and your mother wasn't. So why does the half-Jewishness... where does it matter to you, where does it come out?

    I really don't know, except I was very fond of my father... I don't know how it comes out.

    But you're not prepared to have people deny that you should call yourself half-Jewish?

    Either a full Jew or you're nothing - well, that's according to Jewish usage or law; but I'm talking in the English language and we talk about half-Jews, or part-Jews or.... I think that's perfectly plain and I don't see that I shouldn't.

    But it's an important part of your own self-identity?

    It's a very important part of my self-identity, oh, yes, because I had a Jewish family, and still have, and a Christian family and I still have cousins and... rather more children because I'm old now, but rather more children of cousins, second cousins and one removed... there are plenty of them.

    Are there Jewish observances and rituals and things like that which still you have a fondness for?

    Well, I wasn't brought up with a great many of those. It was more just a family thing. I had one Aunt who was more observant and used to take me to their feasts and their house, and I'd be there with my brother, and we'd take it all in, and... I felt quite happy that way. There was no conflict between the two families, that was another nice thing. When I was very young, they were young people, and they all used to call each other by their first name... we'd do this, that, write to each other, see each other. I never was aware of the conflict between the Jews and the Christians, in our family.

    Now, specifically on your writing. Precision - we've discussed that, one characteristic of it. The sense of poetry is the other that you've always insisted on. Now, how do you define the poetry that you believe is implicit in your use of language?

    It's not so much the use of language, it's the fact that I am aware when writing of rhythms, of rhythms, music, and a poetic vision of things, that I do see things in a different way from ordinary fictional vision. I know that I have a poetic turn of mind. I claim that; whether it's right or not, I don't know, but that's what I feel. And I think language certainly has to do with it because it's a musical thing; and the composition of my books are really musical, to my mind.
    Poetry...

    I know when I'm coming to the end and what I should do, and various things like that, through a musical sense, although I've never studied music seriously.

    I think you've also described it as being about construction and lyricism and a reversal of circumstances at the end.

    Yes, I like that. Reversal of circumstances is what Aristotle called Peripeteia . I like that very much, towards the end, a reversal of circumstances.

    Is there an element of the perverse, almost, of catching the reader by surprise?

    Yes. Yes, I think it's perverse.

    To make us wake up?

    Yes, I think so.

    But it also has to be true, doesn't it?

    Well, it's got to appear to be true. I like a plausible book. I don't like a book where it couldn't possibly happen. If not, if I'm fictional, I like it to be absolutely fictional. I can give you an example. The last book I wrote - was called Aiding and Abetting, and it was about Lord Lucan , and I didn't know what to do with him at the end, and I decided to add just a fictional... but especially fictional, and I arranged for him to be eaten by cannibals.

    ......In Africa ....

    In Africa, and it's extremely fictional, that bit, but I wanted it there, to wind up... to say to people, you know, you don't need to believe it but this is what I'm saying.

    But you say partly it was because you weren't quite sure what to do with the book at that stage?

    I had no idea what to do with him. I wanted him to have some form of just reward, and I thought this was an amusing one.

    Just reward..... ironical.

    Yes.

    Yes. [laughs] Yes, your novelist in Memento Mori, Charmian Colston, says that in many of her books she gets into a tangle about halfway through, and then one of her friends says, and I know that Charmian is now going to say, "but at a certain stage the characters take over"; and that is what she then says. Now, very naughty of course. But an element of truth in this with yourself?

    I don't find so much that the characters take over, no. But I do find that in the middle of a book I do get into a tangle, and then I make it worse as a way of getting out of it somehow. I just complicate it again, even more, and then get out of it.

    You wouldn't stop and go back?

    No. I very seldom change paragraphs and things around. Having thought about it, but I don't I don't move things about constructionally or anything like that. I've heard that it's very useful for people who do move things about to have a computer, but it wouldn't suit me because I just write on.

    So once you've got into a tangle...... you write your way through it.

    Well, I rather try to complicate it even more so that I've got to get out of it.

    Yes. It is remarkable that... I suppose remarkable if you weren't the writer that you are, that you don't say, that's wrong, I'm going to chuck all that up and I'll try a different direction. That never enters your mind?

    I think it might have happened with a short story or two. It could happen. It has happened in my life but hardly ever.

    Have you ever had writer's block?

    Well, yes, I have had writer's block but not really when I sit down with a pen. You know, I really have to sit down to it and then something happens.

    And how do you start a novel, or when do you know that there's a novel ready to come out?
    I really don't know. It's... Just when I've got a clear day with nothing else to do, I see to it that I clear the decks and then I can start, having thought about the theme, so that I just start. I don't think there's any difficulty in starting, for me, at least, because I've been doing it so often.

    But is there always a novel or two in the queue almost writing itself in your mind?

    There used to be but now I've only got one at a time. I used to have two at a time, three at a time. I left it so late in life that everything was bursting out and I'd do two novels a year. But now.... Besides I don't have the energy to write as I used to.

    Which was how?

    I used to write 12 hours a day; now I do three, if I'm lucky, three hours.

    And you'd sometimes get up,... in the old days you'd get up in the middle of the night and write?

    Yes. In the old days I used to do that but I don't do it that now. Besides I write in the morning now, if I write at all. I used to write at night best when everyone was asleep.

    You've described yourself as a writer in action, and you've said you pause and you think, and then you strike like a cat.

    Yes, that's it. I strike. I'm absolutely aware of striking.

    You're striking at the image, or the phrase...?

    The whole concept...I would say the whole concept of the book. I like to begin that way, to get it down and then flow on.

    You've said that your ideas take form as if the cards... you're shuffling the cards of your ideas. And the ideas take form so the cards are a sort of sacrament. Is that part of the Catholic nature that people write about in your writing?

    Yes. Well, I'm wondering if Catholicism does come out in my writing, unless I make a Catholic character or a situation. I don't know that. It's just that Catholicism gives me an inner stability which enables me to write better, I feel. But the idea that in order to express anything spiritual - which is partly in a novel, there's a spiritual element - you have to have something material; that's the sacramental side. So in fact the material aspect is really just pens, notebooks, time, me, energy and a desk - that sort of thing. And that's the sacramental element, I think.

    But you say Catholicism gave you a certainty and a stability which enabled you to write better.

    Yes. I was very tentative before. I wrote biographies and I was very tentative about creative work.

    Were you frightened of the word creation or the thought that you were creative?

    I just was.... I'm really not sure about that. I was just a little worried, tentative. Would it be right, would it not be right? Can I write a novel about that - would it be foolish, wouldn't it be? And somehow with my religion - whether one has anything to do with the other, I don't know - but it does seem so, that I just gained confidence, and I don't care if it's foolish or anything, I just write.

    But you're not a preaching, moralistic sort of Catholic.

    No. I've never had any, any desire - probably I should have - but I've never had any desire to change people's characters or to convert them to any idea of mine. I like to express my ideas but I have no idea to proselytise in any... I haven't got it in me. People are what they are, you know. I don't like to go round changing people.

    There's an awkward squad side to your belief, isn't there - your admiration for Job, the first man in the Old Testament to challenge God. Explore that a bit.

    Oh, yes. Well, Job is every author's character, he's wonderful. It's the most beautiful poem anyway. It's almost comic the way he says to God, come out like a man and reason with me, you're not saying anything, you're not doing anything, I'm here. I love the satire of it, trying to talk to God, which is absolutely impossible.

    Is there an element of that in yourself as well, of your Catholicism, that you...

    Yes, very much. Yes.

    Do the priests approve?

    I don't see priests a great deal but I think they approve. If they don't, they keep quiet about it.

    And you have a very strong sense of the devil, don't you?

    Yes, I do. Yes, I really do. I really do think that the devil exists. I think evil exists. I think we see it everywhere.

    And people who are possessed by the devil, in whom the devil works?

    Yes, there are people possessed by the devil in whom the devil works, and there are people who are fiendish themselves. I'm quite sure of that. You can't do anything with them because that is their... their nature.

    But some of the characters in your books who have a devilish element to them, like Bernard Shaw, you give them some of the best lines. Some of them are very funny.

    [laughs] Which one's are those?

    Well the Ballad of Peckham Rye - Dougal.

    Oh yes.

    I mean he's an engaging character, isn't he?

    Yes. I've never really said that he was the devil. He's got horns on his head, but they might be cysts, you know, that sort of thing.

    [laughs] Mm. Were you conscious of conceding that there is something in the devilish character that is almost attractive because of the black humour?

    Yes, there's an ambiguity about that, the fiendish character can be very, very entertaining.

    In your characters, in your books, some people say that the male character - the men - are usually pretty weak.

    Yes.

    [laughs] Why do you think this is?

    I don't know. I think it's natural that a woman should write better about women than about men because one I can't really probably conceive what it's like to be a man, and try as I might I can't really get a strong character. I can't think of one.

    Does this go back partly...

    There is a male character in one of my... who I thought was a strong but sensitive male, in a book I wrote called Reality and Dreams, about a producer.

    The film director, Tom Richards. Yes. Yes. He is quite strong.

    I think so, yes. The nearest I could get.

    Yes. But does this go back to the fact that you yourself said, after I think your second or third not very successful relationship with men, that you are a rotten chooser of men.

    Awful.

    [laughs]

    Really terrible. (laughs] Better when I stop

    But the interesting thing is that you looked at people through sex or sexuality, and that is not sex in the sense of having sex but that everybody has a sexual personality.

    Everybody has a sexual personality, yes. Yes, I do, I suppose I do. I think it... it would be insulting not to attribute some form of sexuality to everyone one meets. One... one has to take the whole person, you know.

    You've moved a lot in your life, sometimes moving towards experience as we've discussed, sometimes moving away from experience, when you moved from London , away from New York . Has this been both a moving towards and a moving away process?

    I went to New York because I really wanted freedom from family preoccupations, but I found it was too distracting. After four years... I wrote two books there. I wrote a book called The Mandelbaum Gate, after having been in the Middle East ; and then I wrote The Girls of Slender Means, in New York . Here I've written all the other books. I've been in Italy over 30 years. It really is a good place for a writer because I'm away from the literary ambience. I like literary life and I like... I've got a lot of friends who are authors and good ones, but I'd rather be an unknown person here...

    Yes, you said you have given up a lot in the way of not going to parties and all that in order to write.

    Of course one does as one gets older anyway, but I'm not very keen.

    In the book that you wrote about Lord Lucan, Aiding and Abetting... now, that above all happened more than 20 years ago, but that was experience that you gathered essentially at second-hand, from newspapers, from television and broadcasting. Is this also another source of taking in experience?

    Yes, it was quite an acute experience when I read it first. I read it over and over again. I wanted to see what happened, and how it could have happened, this strange battering of the nanny in the dark. I always meant to write about, about it but I thought Lucan 'll turn up, and complications of various... and then I thought of a way of doing it where it didn't matter if he did turn up. With Aiding and Abetting I very much wanted to get off my chest also the story of the fake stigmatist. I always wanted to write about.

    What appealed to you about that?

    Well, I remember I knew some nurses at the time because they were staying at a boarding house I was staying at - Irish Nurses. And they were sending off their poor little bits of money to this girl in Bavaria , this woman who was supposed to have this... stigmata. And they used to hand me out prayer sheets and all sorts of things and say how she'd work miracles. I used to try to dissuade them, I said, oh, don't waste your money on that. And years later I heard that she had been exposed as a fake, and she covered herself with menstrual blood every month, and just held up her hands and everyone... but she did apparently do miracles. I suppose psychologically, it would happen that people would be impressed to feel it, you know. And apparently she did do some good. I don't know what happened to her.

    Now, does that raise problems for you as a Catholic, because on the one hand, what could be more abusive of the Catholic faith than the fake stigmata, but then as you say, some people were cured. It's very tricky, isn't it?

    Yes, amazing. I don't know. I think there's a lot of that going on, this... fakery in the Catholic Church. It's a big church. It's full of all sorts of things. But I think there's a lot of fake. And I don't base my faith on fakes and miracles and things. It is a problem, if indeed there were miracles, she did do some cures, just by curing someone miles and miles away, just by praying for them.

    Do you believe in miracles?

    Well, I believe that there can be miracles, yes, but I've never seen one, never experienced one. I've never had a psychic experience in all my life although I've written about ghosts and things.

    And yet you've had a sense of things outside you and bigger than you, and things almost directing you?

    Yes. I have great faith in the supernatural, the existence of something bigger than myself. And the Catholic Church seems to me to sum it up. Besides I like Christianity as a religion. I think it's awfully good. It's the best that there is, as far as I'm concerned.

    And in your own experience it is a benign influence and a benign experience, this supernatural?

    Yes. Yes.

    And you also felt it very strongly in the physical world. I mean, the Victoria Falls , you said, gives you an incredible sense...

    Yes, that was really an intensely, almost religious experience. But I'm not alone there - a lot of people felt that especially the Africans. They have an intensely religious awareness of the Falls. It's an enormous mile-long thing - you look up and down and you can't see the beginning of it or the end. But it was very... very amazing. I found that the Africans were equally moved.

    Do you think that we lack in general a sense of the numinous, the spiritual, in our lives today?

    Well, I think we notice it when it does come, when it's there. It's just that we've lost touch with natural things. I also felt very much that sense of being in touch with nature. Once in India I was on an island outside Bombay , and my friends had gone away to take photographs and things, and I was sitting alone, and some monkeys came on a rock opposite me and looked at me. And I looked at them. And it was an amazing experience.

    And you felt that there was something more going on?

    They were saying, look at her. And I was looking at them. That... only that.

    Did you have any spiritual experiences when you were looking at the Christian sights in Israel and Jordan ?

    Yes, I thought there that you have to be there to realise that miracles could happen. There is a sense that the miracles of the Bible could happen on those spots. It was quite different from learning about it far away, you know? Especially at Mount Sinai , and where the Sermon on the Mount... The miracles of the Bible became more plausible to me.

    Are there other aspects of the world around us that you're taking in intensively [overtalking]...

    At the moment it's just... I think The Finishing School, I'm in that sort of ambience at the moment, [laughs] thinking of it.

    Yes. Is it your credo overall that you feel you've done enough to realise yourself? And you've said the really important thing is to start, it doesn't always matter if you finish?

    No, but it can't matter if it matters if you finish because we die in the middle of something, usually, and it can't be an obligation to finish anything but one hopes to finish things, complete things. Yes, I feel I've realised myself but I'm never happy, you know. I want to finish something else, a number of things.

    Is it a question of doing what Eliot said, the need to justify your existence?

    Did he say that?

    Yes.

    Probably. Yes, one likes to justify an existence, but... I don't know, I think sitting in the sun is justifying your existence quite honestly.....

    But not...

    He was very puritanical, Eliot .

    Which you're not?

    No, I'm not.

    [laughs] But as I say, you think you've done enough to realise yourself, which is...

    I think I have, yes, but I'd like to do more. I want to finish this and a few other things. I've started a play, I'd like to finish that too.

    Well, let's hope that you do.

    Let's hope.

    Dame Muriel , thank you very much.

    Thank you.

Credits

Producer
Tony Cheevers

Broadcasts

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