Edinburgh Book Festival: Alexander McCall Smith: A Haven for the Traditionally Built

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Anyone passing by the Baillie Gifford Main Tent at the Book Festival on Thursday lunchtime could be forgiven for thinking there was a brilliant comedy act on stage, given the uproarious laughter and applause.

This was in fact a very happy hour of conversation between Stuart Kelly (a stylishly eloquent performance himself), and the most prolific of best selling authors, Alexander McCall Smith.

The plan of action, said Kelly, was to discuss the latest Ramotswe case, two new novels, "Fatty O’Leary's Dinner Party" and "The Forever Girl", a modern adaptation of Austen’s Emma, the continuing saga of "44 Scotland Street" residents and a forthcoming Opera. Prolific is the word.

First we are introduced to a larger than life character, Mr Fatty O’Leary from Arkansas who decides to visit Ireland, his ancestral home, with his wife Betty. Generously proportioned, he suffers a host of misfortunes and embarrassing humiliations, related by Mr McCall Smith with infectious giggles.

This is a pocket-sized “Literary Amuse Bouche” and having relished every word of this charming tale, it’s warmly recommended.

Another new novel is "The Forever Girl" which he describes as a poignant, romantic story of unrequited love, set between the Cayman Islands and Edinburgh. It’s a real tear-jerker which, with these contrasting Caribbean and Scottish landscapes, would make a gorgeous film.

The lively discussion speeds along covering every topic of contemporary Edinburgh life, fact and fiction, from buying a pair of classic two-tone shoes, (“a mistake!”), Restaurant reviewers, to Moray Place Nudists and the Trams.

In the Scotland Street series, Bertie, a child genius aged 6, is a beloved wee chap; in an extract from “Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers,” he asks if he can travel to school by the new Tram, only to be told by Irene, his mother, that “ the tram doesn’t travel anywhere people wish to go”. The intelligent Bertie is seriously displeased at this ridiculous situation!

McCall Smith is currently writing the next Scotland Street novel which will be serialised in The Scotsman and later published in book form as “ The Revolving Door of Life.”

The Austen Project is a most inspiring new literary series published by Borough Press. Several British authors (Val McDermid, Joanna Trollope et al), have been invited to write an updated version of Jane Austen classics. McCall Smith was given the task of revisiting the romantic life and times of Emma.

First he thought of transporting the story to Tobermory but felt the quintessential Englishness would be lost.

So Norfolk is the setting with Emma attending Bath University where she drives a Mini. How did he enjoy the task of revitalising Austen’s characters into modern society.? “ I loved every moment of it,” he replied with a broad smile.

“Perhaps I could now adapt Trainspotting and set it in Morningside” he joked, “Tramspotting!”

And finally we hear about another current project, writing the Libretto for an Opera, with music by Nigel Osborne, about Anthony Blunt the Spy and Art historian who had the distinguished role as surveyor of the Queen’s paintings. One of the key scenes will feature Blunt having tea with the Queen Mother.

We were also treated to some entertainment. Philip Contini (of Valvona and Crolla, sponsors of the event), sang a lovely Neapolitan song, a musical Italian fairy tale for a child.

Over the next few months too, he will be completing the next Isabel Dalhousie novel, and preparing for a concert at the Queens Hall in December illustrated with photographs of old Edinburgh.

Alexander McCall Smith may not be a stand up comedian on the Fringe but he is a wonderfully witty and wise Armchair raconteur, delighting us all with actorly readings, hilarious stories and seriously amusing anecdotes.

The fictional series of novels and other books by Alexander McCall Smith are published by Polygon Books. www.polygonbooks.co.uk

Emma - a Modern Retelling by Alexander McCall Smith will be published by The Borough Press in November 2014. www.boroughpress.co.uk

Read Allan's review of Alexander McCall Smith, A Haven For Traditionally Built