City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

City Guide to Edinburgh, Scotland

Alexander McCall Smith

By Vivien Devlin - Posted on 17 August 2008

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Alexander McCall Smith is a literary enigma. Following a brilliant academic career as a professor of medical law, working in the fields of ethics and philosophy, he is now a prolific writer of three major series of distinctively different novels, most notably the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, starring Precious Ramatoswe, 44 Scotland Street, and the Isabel Dalhousie books, and all international bestsellers. And he's also an occasional bassoonist with the RTO, the Really Terrible Orchestra.

This Book Festival event was chaired by Al Senter, although this was no predictable Q&A interview. For an hour the capacity audience was treated to a most entertaining, absorbing, inspiring and enlightening conversation. Senter and McCall Smith quickly adopt a double act routine, playing an amusing game of words and wit. No direct questions are really needed to fire the author into a wonderful anecdote, travel tale or story of an encounter, linking how a scene, place or person then finds its way into a novel. Napier and Aberdeen Universities have both been honoured with product placement, as a way of "paying a debt".

The latest Scotland Street book is The Unbearable Lightness of Scones. This brilliant title, he admitted, was not his idea, but one of his editorial team who received a bottle of champagne in gratitude. We learn about the background to an hilarious incident featured in the novel about the correct pronunciation of a famous East Lothian golf village, is it Gill-ann (yes, says McCall Smith) or Gull-ann? There's even been a court case about it, when the Lord Lieutenant, Lord Lyon finally proclaimed Gill-anne correct - although some villagers would disagree.

On asked about a writing plan for his 44 Scotland Street books, featuring Angus, Irene and Bertie, he claims "the lives of the characters unfold," as if they have a life of their own. With such colourful and strong minded personalities such as Mma Ramatoswe and Isabel Dalhousie, the storytelling is more a stream of consciousness, each novel respectively set in places he knows so well - the sunny landscape of Botswana and around the middle class morals and manners of Edinburgh society, both of which he knows intimately well. We hear a picturesque account of a recent visit to "to the banks of the great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River" - with crocodiles rather too close for comfort - and the news that a 12-part TV series of the Ladies Detective Agency is in production.

There are few contemporary novelists such as McCall Smith who continually explore the brighter side of life with a positive outlook and happy ending. But is that the real world? "Oh, yes," he replies quickly with a broad smile, adding that one can be aware of world problems but why dwell on bleak disasters. To be philosophical about life is to be remarkably happy. It's all about happiness. No wonder so many of us adore his life-affirming books and vivacious characters!