Back Issues

The Bottle Imp was first published in May 2007. You can browse all our back issues here:

With a writing career that included biography, criticism, drama and short fiction as well as novels, Muriel Spark was never one to do things by halves. Those unfamiliar with her work might think otherwise, considering the now-unfashionable slimness of her numerous books. The contemporary publishing industry favours the blockbuster, the trilogy, and the continuing series – or at the very least books with a spine-width broad enough to catch a punter’s jaded eye across a crowded marketplace. (Contemporary readers, though, may be rather more in tune: many people appreciate the merits of a fast and flashing story, executed stylishly, and well.) Spark’s novels in particular are brief, quick, and very final, with no loose ends left dangling; when she writes characters, they stay written.

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How does one do justice to a writer who lived for over a hundred years? Who witnessed almost every single day of the entire twentieth century, with over eighty books and an uncounted number of articles and essays to her credit? Who, over and above her own literary achievements, helped shepherd into print titles as various — and influential — as J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Ringsand James Watson’s The Double Helix? One could begin, perhaps, by remembering not to forget her.

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Scotland is the land of the Scots. To what extent are the Scots the people of the land which bears them? Landscape settles into language, hills and lochs and stones are built up into stories. Moods shift like wind on water: clouds scud, sun gleams, snow falls, ice cracks. Environment informs us, infuses us: quite literally, from our bones on up, it is the making of us. In this issue, we go for a stravaig into Scotland — Caledonia stern and wild, that fairyland of poesy, deer on high hills, shipyard, kailyard, fernie brae and all — in search of its natural heart.

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It has become fashionable, of late, to point out that the novels of Sir Walter Scott are scarcely read, now; to remark that few would willingly pick up Waverley, let alone give shelf-space to Peveril of the Peak (it killed Prince Albert and it can do the same for you). But — controversial, I know — might there be a tad more to Scott than everything we already know about him, having never read him? He did more-or-less invent the historical novel, after all. And his stuff was popular. I mean, wildly popular, from Siberia to Alaska and back round again the other way.

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The Scots have a peculiar relationship with medicine. On the one hand, we have pioneered many of the most important developments in medical science: world-shaking highlights include, but are by no means limited to, the clinical trial; the general anaesthetic; the hypodermic syringe; penicillin; beta-blockers; ultrasound scanners; full-body MRI; the Glasgow coma scale; and apoptosis. On the other, we might consider the deep-fried Mars bar; alcoholism; and the phrase “just an ordinary sword”. It is remarkable that so much effort has been expended in the fight against sickness and untimely death by a nation whose people sometimes seem to pursue those ends with such wanton abandon. Scotland’s medical schools blossomed in the Enlightenment, and Scottish doctors and surgeons came to dominate the field. It’s not surprising, then, that there should be such an overlap in Scotland between leeches and letters.

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