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Conversing with “a slightly shambolic dandy”

February 4, 2010
Alexander McCall Smith

McCall Smith, 2007 (Courtesy: Tim Duncan via Wikipedia, using CC-BY-3.0 Unported)

“A slightly shambolic dandy” is how journalist Elizabeth Grice described novelist Alexander McCall Smith in Britain’s Telegraph newspaper. Shambolic works to some degree, but dandy? That’s not quite how I would describe him after tonight’s literary event in which he “conversed” with Colin Steele, retired university librarian, long-term bibliophile, and reviewer for The Canberra Times. A better description for the man we saw is, I think, “rumpled and witty literary maharaja” used by Rodenbeck in the New York Review of Books blog – though, can a Scot be a maharaja?

I have by no means read all, or even nearly all, of McCall Smith’s works. In fact, I have only read the books in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. It has become a family tradition to read the next book in this series during our annual week at the coast. This year’s book, therefore, will be Tea-time for the traditionally built. I am not a reader of series and indeed I can’t recollect any other books-in-series that I have read in my now rather protracted adult life. So, why have I made an exception for these books? One reason is the tradition: having a family reading tradition like this is special. But it is also about the warmth and spirit of generosity conveyed in the books. McCall Smith says that he is often criticised for his “cosy” and positive view of the world but he argues that it is “philosophically defensible” to write about positive things.  There is harshness and bleakness in the world, he said, and literature “must reflect” that, but it doesn’t have to do that exclusively. Fair enough – and so, while my general preference is for more provocative reads, I do enjoy  Mma Ramotswe and I admire McCall Smith for his beliefs and his commitment to putting them into practice.

One of the reasons readers like to attend literary events is to find out something about an author’s writing philosophy and/or reason for writing and/or writing process. We got some of this from McCall Smith, albeit mostly presented through humorous stories than through theoretical pontification. Take, for example, his discussion of how he started the Detective Agency books. He said he didn’t really know what business Mma Ramotswe was going to start when he began the first story. She might just as easily, for example, have started a dry-cleaning business – and he then proceeded to suggest that “the dry-cleaning novel hasn’t come into its own yet” and that here was a niche for the taking that could perhaps replace the vampire novel!

He is, you can see, a funny man. He told us many stories, but I’ll end here with just one more. He spoke in praise of women readers and bookclubs because they “are keeping fiction alive”. However, he said, bookclubs are also frightening for authors because they can be “quite severe” in their criticism, and so he concluded with the following request to bookclub members: next time, he said, that you want to criticise a book, ask yourself whether the author was suffering from gallstones when writing it, and if you think that might be the case you could be a bit charitable. Sir Walter Scott, he said, suffered from gallstones! What do you do with an author like this – except enjoy the experience and be very glad there are people like this in the world…

12 Comments leave one →
  1. February 5, 2010 12:41 am

    I’m very jealous of your evening. I’ve seen him on the tele several times and he is a witty and engaging speaker. I’ve certainly not read all of his works either. In fact I think I’ve read about 4 or maybe 5 of the Detective Agency books. They are certainly engaging and cosy. What a wonderful tradition of reading one each year on your annual holiday. Fabulous idea, and they certainly are perfect holiday reading. I would like to try some of his other books as well, but the reading schedule being what it is, I haven’t made time as yet.

    • February 5, 2010 8:49 am

      Yes, it really was a treat – and what I didn’t say in the post is the HE SHOOK MY HAND! I was sitting on the edge of the aisle and as he walked down to the podium he stopped and shook hands with random audience members. I was near the back so didn’t notice him doing it – he just suddenly appeared at my side with his hand extended. I wonder if any of his talent can transfer that way – I didn’t feel an electric jolt but you never know!

  2. February 5, 2010 12:45 am

    Oh I do so love the Ladies’ Detective Agency books. I too have followed the series and am generally not a series reader. I’ve read the Dave Robicheaux novels and am caught up but started in the middle and read all of James Lee Burke. I’ve tried other Smith books but don’t like them so much. I started with the first book about Mma Ramotswe, fell in love and have simply kept up. I tried to get my mom and daughter interested but they couldn’t get into it. I think my sister is – I have the books in hard cover and paperback. I have some in audio format.

    He has a new one coming out in April, The Double Comfort Safari Club. I’ll get it in audio if it’s available but in hard c cover if necessary.

    • February 5, 2010 8:52 am

      I remembered that you like them Bekah. I must admit that around the 3rd/4th book I got bit irritated with the series formula – you know how you are always reminded of things (like tv or movie serials giving you the recap) – but in the end the charm won out. And one a year is just nice. Oh, and The Double Comfort Safari Club is out here now. Looks intriguing…

    • February 8, 2010 3:32 pm

      Bekah, I realise I mightn’t have made sense when I said we read the latest in the series on our week away, but that we were reading Tea time…. This is because we read the latest PAPERBACK. Double Comfort is out here now, but in hardback. That will be next year’s book!

  3. adevotedreader permalink
    February 5, 2010 3:18 pm

    I’m quite envious of your evening as well, it sounds like it was fun!

    I haven’t read the No 1 Ladies’ Detectove Agency series yet (your family tradition sounds like the perfect way to read them), but have enjoyed his Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie books for their observation, wit and warmth.

    • February 5, 2010 5:42 pm

      I have some friends who love those – he told some funny stories about them, and read out a bit from the latest instalment of the Scotland Street – about Bertie? It sounded fun…

  4. February 5, 2010 11:05 pm

    How lovely to be able to attend an event like that. Our local library doesn’t bother inviting authors in – even local ones. You’ve written a nice review of the books and the author – I’ve never really taken to these books although I ‘ve tried them, also the Edinburgh series. If you like this you may enjoy The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society!

    • February 5, 2010 11:28 pm

      It is lovely to have events like these – and now I am retired I am trying to get to a few more (but as you know even we retired people get busy!). I have read The Guernsey book – it was a pleasant read, and told me something about the war I didn’t know, but is not the sort of book I seek out.

  5. February 6, 2010 11:35 am

    McCall Smith is one of the few authors my usually-non-reading mother likes to read. She passes the books on to me sometimes — I think the last one I read was the book in which her “traditional build” makes the car creak as she gets into it.

    They had an article by him in the Guardian a few days ago, talking about tea: http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2010/jan/31/tea-drink-alexander-mccall-smith

    “It was not easy; families can be split on the subject of tea bags. My wife and I were adamant that we would not use them, even when we were staying in houses where tea bags were all that was available. We did not openly criticise our hostess’s tea arrangements, but we began to travel with supplies of loose-leaf tea in our suitcases, along with a teapot.”

    • February 8, 2010 3:34 pm

      LOL My mother almost never has tea when we go out because most people serve teabags. She doesn’t like coffee so she goes thirsty. Why does your mum not usually read? Because she doesn’t like it much or because she can’t find gentle enough books that suit her? (I’ll check that article later btw …)

      • February 8, 2010 4:56 pm

        Combination of both. She doesn’t like reading very much to begin with, and the books she likes to read, when she does read, are softly-paced comedies about animals, gardening, or people living in somewhere like Botswana, or a cottage in the English countryside, or the Outer Hebrides. Gerald Durrell suits her, so does Derek Tangye, who wrote about life on a daffodil farm. Disregarding the No. 1 Ladies series for a moment, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her read a book that was set in a city.

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