Tuesday 9 April 2013

Professor Isobel Murray

Finishing my MA in Edinburgh, I had a great desire to go on, not to stop. I spoke to a wise tutor who suggested I try Oscar Wilde as a subject. Unaware that no male student at that time (1960) could afford to do research on Wilde, I went on, and loved it. Long after I went to Aberdeen (a lucky break!), I worked on editing Wilde, until I had produced Oxford World’s Classics volumes of most of his work. Making good texts available at reasonable prices has been a central aim. What now?

Increasingly I felt that our students weren’t getting enough choice of modern Scottish authors, and I began to teach in this area. My husband Bob Tait and I produced Ten Modern Scottish Novels, and it helped a bit. As a side interest, we started a series of in depth interviews with Scottish writers, which eventually went on to become four volumes of Scottish Writers Talking. In some ways, this was a daft undertaking, because reading whole oeuvres, transcribing the crowded tapes and editing was incredibly work-intensive, let alone that I would finish by working further with about half of my interviewees, and counting a lot of new friends. But that was a privilege worth working for.

We interviewed Jessie Kesson, for example- a wonderful experience! And became good friends, correspondents, answering the telephone to hear, ’Bob, ma mannie! I’m in Aiberdeen. Can ye’s come for a drink?’ Besides the drinks there followed articles and correspondence, and when, sadly, she died, her daughter asked me to write a biography, and passed on three bulging black bin bags crammed with paper, which Jessie had referred to as ‘my office’. The biography eventually got written, and it was made the National Library’s ‘Research Book of the Year’ in 2000. I reckoned that might owe much to the great quotations from Jessie that were packed in, as well as to her immensely moving and dramatic story. Recently, the second edition was published by Kennedy and Boyd, and thanks to Richard Bennett this time with the correct identification of her lost father, a secret which Jessie had not known.

Interviewing Naomi Mitchison meant a visit to beautiful Carradale, in Kintyre, in 1984, and trying in vain to read about seventy books first! By this time, Bob was helping with sound but had too much else to do to try to read all the books. I was most apologetic, having read only 36, but Naomi hadn’t met anyone so well read (!) for ages, and we had a wonderful weekend. After lunch on Sunday she led Bob off to ‘fell some trees’, but luckily they were only saplings – he is no forester! Then he and Naomi kept straying off the subject to talk current and world politics, while I tried in vain to keep them in order.

After that I asked if I could do an anthology of her short stories, as students were never given the time to read any of the two long novels that were in print. That was Beyond This Limit: Selected Shorter Fiction of Naomi Mitchison. These stories ranged from a story about one of the animal painters in ancient cave paintings, to the memoir of a woman who had been caring for her granddaughter when the ‘small’ atom bomb fell on her Highland village. We went on, writing, working together, looking for publishers. Richard Drew asked me to help her with a collection of older stories and poems, A Girl Must Live. I last saw her when Jenni Calder’s fine biography was launched, and I spoke about Lobsters on the Agenda, which I’d just done an Introduction for.

Then I was put in touch with Stuart Johnston the publisher, and we started the ‘Naomi Mitchison Library’. I am editor of the series, ably assisted by Dr Moira Burgess. I have contributed Introductions to a good number of volumes (See the Kennedy and Boyd website). This has made for a near fulltime task in my retirement: Mitchison’s range and interests are daunting, and her histories well researched. She constructs wonderfully credible settings, and investigates what it means to be human in all of them. She attacks forces which she considers hostile to humanity, and advocates loyalty, trust and good will to others. I have followed her through Athens and Sparta, and a life of Byzantine Anna Comnena, and a novel life of Cleopatra. I visited Botswana and eighteenth-century Gleneagles, explored other planets with a spacewoman and witnessed a civilisation all but destroyed by nuclear war trying to recover over centuries. Work on each of these has been an education in itself. We are by no means finished, but we are ready for the Mitchison renaissance!

This May it was 75 years since the Mitchisons first came to Carradale, and Carradale is celebrating with a ‘Noufest’. It welcomed a number of the family, and had concerts and ceilidhs, with new settings of some of her poems, and one literary session with her four most dedicated followers, Drs Moira Burgess and Donald Smith, biographer Jenni Calder and me. We did a ‘rehearsal’ at the National Library on May 2nd, and the whole community celebrated from May 10th to 12th in Carradale Village Hall, largely gifted to them by Dick and Naomi Mitchison.

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