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Keeping Stevenson's spirit alive and well

DOUBTLESS it was due to nothing more than happy coincidence that my mother delivered me on the same date as Robert Louis Stevenson's mother did him.

For the record, and for those of you who still send cards, it is November 13, the year – in Stevenson's case – being 1850. This is one of the reasons why I feel a special affinity for a writer who I have no hesitation in declaring Scotland's greatest. While others may prefer Burns or Scott or Irvine Welsh, the Edinburgh-born author of such classic novels as Kidnapped and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is for me simply peerless.

You might think, therefore, that my heart would leap at the thought that the 162nd anniversary of his birth is to be designated RLS Day. It has been so called by the Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature, a publicly funded body whose raison d'etre, eight years after it was founded, still eludes me. Hoping to do for Stevenson what Bloomsday does for James Joyce, the occasion will apparently be marked with fans of his work wearing daft moustaches and velvet jackets and various events vaguely related to literature. Don't say you weren't warned.

Says Ali Bowden, director of the trust that runs the City of Literature: "RLS Day is our way of raising a glass to one of Edinburgh's most famous sons and keeping his spirit alive. Edinburgh keeps Robert Louis Stevenson in its heart and mind all year round: he's remembered on plaques and in bookshops; in St Giles' Cathedral and Princes Street Gardens, reading lists and cinema screens. But it's lovely to have an excuse to throw a party."

Throwing parties, it seems, is what an organisation like the City of Literature is really rather good at. Nor ought this to be mocked, though one would prefer there to be greater emphasis on the work than on the play. By another astonishing coincidence I was involved a quarter of a century and more ago in bringing to fruition a festival devoted to all things RLS, including readings, lectures, films and an exhibition of the illustrations Ralph Steadman drew for Treasure Island. The highlight, however, was the first ever (and only) Stevenson Supper, which began with a schooner of "Yo-ho-ho" rum and ended with "Pieces of Eight", ie a well-known brand of post-prandial mints.

Despite Ms Bowden's protestations, I wonder to what extent the good folk of our capital and beyond really know of Stevenson and his books. Statues and plaques are all very well but what maintains a writer's flame is the availability of his books. Apart from those already mentioned these are not easy to come by outwith the dwindling number of secondhand bookshops or via the internet.

There are, of course, libraries, to which serious readers still devoutly go. But by the time Edinburgh's Central Library opened, in 1890, Stevenson was resident in Samoa where, one gathers, the natives are much better informed about him than his immediate kinsfolk. Such is often the fate of those who choose to live in foreign parts. Muriel Spark suffered similarly. Like Stevenson, she was "an exile in heart and mind – cautious, affectionate, critical". Edinburgh, she added, was the kind of place in which she could never hope to be understood. Like Stevenson, too, only a few of her books are readily available. Even among those who say they insist they are well-read it is relatively rare to come across someone who has delved deeper into her oeuvre than The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.

The problem with Stevenson is his association with children's literature which allowed myopic critics and ignorant academics to question his seriousness. In recent decades, however, there have been signs that this is changing, leading to an overdue reassessment of his achievement which, by any standard, was phenomenal, especially given the fact he died in his early 40s. Here was a man who excelled at whatever he attempted – short stories, travelogues, novels and novellas, poetry, essays and letters. Moreover, and more importantly, his style has endured and shows no sign of turning antique, like Scott's. And that, when all the partying is over, is what really matters.

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