Tom Gauld, Goliath (#BookReview)

It’s probably just me, but I hadn’t heard of Tom Gauld until a member of my little volunteer indexing team sent me a link to some of his “cultural” cartoons in The Guardian. I was immediately enchanted. And then, he lent me one of Gauld’s graphic novels, the above-named Goliath. Being primarily a textual person, I am not a big graphic novel reader, but our son became keen on them in his teens, so I have some familiarity and have read a handful.

Now I’ve added Goliath to that elite bunch. It’s the sort of graphic novel I enjoy – spare, drily witty, a bit melancholic. It is also, as you will have assumed, a retelling of the biblical David and Goliath story. Like many modern retellings, Goliath is told from a different perspective, that of Goliath himself, who is seen as a pawn in the game of war. In a wry touch, Goliath is your quintessential gentle giant. When, out of the blue, he is approached to be measured for some armour, he says to the armour-maker, “Are you sure this isn’t a mistake? I mainly do admin”. As one who doesn’t mind a bit of admin, I’m with Goliath.

Gauld has published well over 20 books, starting back in 2001, but according to Wikipedia he is best known for Goliath (first published in 2012) and Mooncop (2016). I notice that his latest, published just this year, is Revenge of the librarians. Now, that’s one I’d love to read!

Anyhow, back to Goliath. Although he’d rather do admin work, destiny has other plans for him as we know – and so, he finds himself, under the Philistine king’s orders, waiting in a valley, armoured and armed up, issuing, morning and night, a challenge to the Israelites:

I am Goliath of Gath,
Champion of
the Philistines.

I challenge you:

Choose a man,
Let him come to me
that we may fight.

If he be able
to kill me
then we shall be your servants.

But if I kill him
then you shall be
our servants.

Poor Goliath. “I’m not a champion”, he says. In fact, he continues, “I’m the fifth worst swordsman in my platoon … I do paperwork. I’m a very good administrator.” But, in classic political spin, he’s told that there won’t be any fighting. He just has to “look like a champion” and “the enemy will cower”. We all know how that turned out … along came David (albeit in this version, after a very very long time of waiting for poor Goliath).

The reviews on the back cover sum it up beautifully. The New York Times says that Gauld uses “simple, clever images to explore the larger, more complicated issues of war and heroism”, while London’s The Times says, and I particularly like this, that “Goliath is a master class in reduction … a celebration of the Christian underdog becomes a subtle meditation on the power of spin and the absurdity of war”. The rest of the back cover review excerpts are similarly spot on.

Small reproduction, allowed for review purposes.

So, did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. I liked the spareness of the art and the text. The first five textless pages set the scene – that is, they show Goliath going about his day quietly, peacefully, doing his paperwork, having a stretch at his desk, and trudging down the hill on which the encampment is located to get a drink. One of my challenges with graphic novels is taking in the images and the text, without letting one distract me from the other, but in Goliath the spareness of both made this easy. Making it easy to comprehend, though, is not the main reason for the spareness! It also reduces the story to its essence, encouraging us to engage with Goliath and what he is experiencing.

I also liked the humanity of Goliath and the small boy whose job it is to support him. As they traipse to see the captain, the small boy carries Goliath’s oversize shield. “Are you OK with that?”, asks Goliath. “Sort of” replies the boy. These two, we clearly see, are pawns in the game, potential “collateral damage” as it were, though of course the Philistine leaders believe they have the winning hand.

I also liked the subtle humour, which you have hopefully picked up already. And, of course, I appreciated the anti-war message conveyed through a twist which shows the ostensibly powerful giant as the manipulated underdog – just by changing the perspective. Something we all need to do, eh? See and feel things from another side. Recommended.

Tom Gauld
Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2017 (orig. ed. 2012)
ISBN: 978770462991

Sir Walter Scott, Waverley, Vol. 1 (#BookReview)

I admit it, I’m defeated – not because I’m not enjoying it, but because it needs more attention than my distracted brain can give it right now. Consequently, I am posting on just the first volume of Sir Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley. I read it for my Jane Austen meeting last weekend. We did Scott for two reasons: he was highly impressed by Austen’s writing, and Austen liked his!

Waverley was published in 1814, and Austen mentioned it in a letter to her niece Anna Austen that year (which was just three years before she died). She said, in her inimitable Austen way:

Walter Scott has no business to write novels, especially good ones. – It is not fair. – He has Fame & Profit enough as a Poet, and should not be taking the bread out of other people’s mouths. – I do not like him, & do not mean to like Waverley if I can help it – but fear I must… (28 September 1814)

And I must too, really, I must, notwithstanding my decision to not continue!

And Walter Scott is worth liking, because he liked Austen! Here are three references he made to Austen in his journal a decade after she died:

Also read again, and for the third time at least, Miss Austen’s very finely written novel of _Pride and Prejudice_. That young lady had a talent for describing the involvements and feelings and characters of ordinary life, which is to me the most wonderful I ever met with. The Big Bow-wow strain I can do myself like any now going; but the exquisite touch, which renders ordinary commonplace things and characters interesting, from the truth of the description and the sentiment, is denied to me. What a pity such a gifted creature died so early! Journal, 14/3/1826)


The women do this better – Edgeworth, [Susan] Ferrier, Austen have all had their portraits of real society, far superior to anything man, vain man, has produced of the like nature. (28/3/826)


Wrote five pages of the _Tales_. Walked from Huntly Burn, having gone in the carriage. Smoked my cigar with Lockhart after dinner, and then whiled away the evening over one of Miss Austen’s novels. There is a truth of painting in her writings which always delights me. They do not, it is true, get above the middle classes of society, but there she is inimitable. (Journal, 18/9/1827)


Waverley book cover

Waverley is regarded as the first work of historical fiction. Its subtitle, “Or, Sixty years since”, tells us its historical setting, which is, specifically, the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The plot concerns Edward Waverley, an idealistic, impractical young man who joins the army, and is sent to the Scottish Highlands. He meets passionate Scottish patriots, Fergus and his sister Flora, who support Prince Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie), and is attracted to their cause. Not a wise move! Initially published anonymously, Waverley was a big success, marking, says Penguin’s blurb, “the start of his extraordinary literary success”.

So, why do I like it, and yet am not planning to finish it? I like it for its humour and Austen-like observations on human nature. I like the way the novel starts with Scott, as first person narrator, explaining why he chose his character Waverley’s name (“an uncontaminated name, bearing with its sound little of good or evil, excepting what the reader shall be hereafter pleased to affix to it”), and clarifying what sort of novel he was writing. He lists various possibilities – including Gothic, Romance, Sentimental – and then concludes:

By fixing then the date of my story Sixty Years before this present 1st November, 1805, I would have my readers understand that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners; that my hero will neither have iron on  his shoulders, as of yore, nor on the heels of his boots, as is the present fashion of Bond Street; and that my damsels will neither be clothed “in purple and in pall,” like the Lady Alice of an old ballad, nor reduced to the primitive nakedness of a modern fashionable at a route. From this my choice of an æra the understanding critic may farther presage, that the object of my tale is more a description of men than manners.

Examples of his Austen-like observations, include:

Where we are not at ease, we cannot be happy; and therefore it is not surprising, that Edward Waverley supposed that he disliked and was unfitted for society, merely because he had not yet acquired the habit of living in it with ease and comfort, and of reciprocally giving and receiving pleasure; (Ch. 4)


There is no better antidote against entertaining too high an opinion of others, than having an excellent one of ourselves at the very same time. (Ch. 5)

There are many satirical or humorous comments made in this first volume, such this to the modern “soft” education methods:

I am aware I may be here reminded of the necessity of rendering instruction agreeable to youth, and of Tasso’s infusion of honey into the medicine prepared for a child;

Unfortunately, this method, he argues, did not serve our young hero well:

With a desire of amusement therefore, which better discipline might soon have converted into a thirst for knowledge, young Waverley drove through the sea of books, like a vessel without a pilot or a rudder.

Don’t you love that image, “like a vessel without a rudder”? Anyhow, he then elaborates on the ills of unstructured, uncritical reading.

Later, he describes Waverley’s arrival in the Highlands:

Three or four village girls, returning from the well or brook with pitchers and pails upon their heads, formed more pleasing objects, and with their thin short-gowns and single petticoats, bare arms, legs, and feet, uncovered heads and braided hair, somewhat resembled Italian forms of landscape. Nor could a lover of the picturesque have challenged either the elegance of their costume, or the symmetry of their shape, although, to say the truth, a mere Englishman, in search of the comfortable, a word peculiar to his native tongue, might have wished the clothes less scanty, the feet and legs somewhat protected from the weather, the head and complexion shrouded from the sun, or perhaps might even have thought the whole person and dress considerably improved by a plentiful application of spring water, with a quantum sufficit of soap. The whole scene was depressing, for it argued, at the first glance, at least a stagnation of industry, and perhaps of intellect.

This paragraph has so much in it: the cheeky reference to the mania for “the picturesque“, the “dig” at the English (and their preference for comfort, and, by implication, for “niceness”), and the social commentary regarding the poverty of the peasants.

Now, I know some people don’t like authors who talk to you. I understand it destroys their engagement – the fantasy that what they are reading is “real” – but I don’t feel that way. It could be argued, I think, that this style particularly suits historical fiction because it can remind us that this is someone telling us a story and that we need to think about what we are being told? Anyhow, I did start Volume 2, which opens:

Shall this be a short or a long chapter?—This is a question in which you, gentle reader, have no vote, however much you may be interested in the consequences; just as probably you may (like myself) have nothing to do with the imposing a new tax, excepting the trifling circumstance of being obliged to pay it.

Haha, eh?

However, the book is slow reading. There are so many long descriptions, and, in my Kindle version, the frequently appearing blue-links to footnotes kept distracting my eye, regardless of whether I decided to click on them or not! I just can’t love it enough, right now, to finish it.

So, I’ll leave you with Penguin’s praise that “with its vivid depiction of the wild Highland landscapes and patriotic clansmen, Waverley is a brilliant evocation of the old Scotland – a world Scott believed was swiftly disappearing in the face of a new, modern era.” Scott’s heart was in the right place. He treated his oppressed characters (peasants, for example) with respect, and he recognised that defeat was often accompanied by loss of culture. He is worth reading!

Sir Walter Scott
Waverley, Vol. 1
Penguin Classics, 2004 (Orig. pub. 1814)
ISBN: 978-0140430714

Alexander McCall Smith, The Saturday big tent wedding party (Review)

I have a number of tenets – if that’s not too grand a word for it – according to which I read. These include that I don’t read series books and I don’t read crime. However, the best rules are made to be broken, aren’t they? And so, I break mine for our family holiday tradition which is to read the latest book in The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. We are now behind though. We should have read The Saturday big tent wedding party (the 12th of now 13 books in the series) last September. But that annual family holiday as well as our February holiday this year were cancelled due to health reasons. We finally got away in August … I have now read the book and am about to pass it on to the next eager reader.

So, what to say? If you know the series you’ll know what it is about and may have read this one already. If you don’t know the series, then I’d say if you are looking for something warm and charming, with a touch of humour, to fill in a quiet time you could do worse than spend a few hours with Precious Ramotswe and her family and friends. Or, if you prefer to spend your reading time on different fare, watching the miniseries on DVD could be just the thing. It was an enjoyable adaptation.

I said that I don’t read crime. However, these are probably not books leapt on by aficionados of that genre. There is always a crime to investigate of course … but while the crimes in these books have, on occasion, involved violence or real danger for the victims, their resolution never depends on violence, guns, car chases and the like. Rather, Precious (and her assistant, Mma Makutsi) use common-sense, psychology, simple observation and forthrightness to determine the perpetrator. Police, courts and jails are rarely if ever invoked.  The denouement, instead, usually entails natural justice and/or negotiated restitution. If only life could be managed this way …

Which brings me to McCall Smith and his philosophy. These books espouse a life based on moral and ethical behaviour, on forgiveness and humility, and on understanding where the other is coming from. It might seem (and is) a little cutesy at times, but the heart is real and the lessons seriously intended. In resolving the crime in this 12th book, Precious Ramotswe thinks:

There would be no further attacks – that was clear, and the damage had been set right by the one not responsible for it. All that was lacking was the punishment of the one responsible. But punishment often did not do what we wanted it to do …

And the one responsible … well, that would be giving it away. Suffice it to say that it’s not as simple as it might have looked at the beginning.

The rest of the book – like its predecessors – continues the story of Precious and her family. The apprentices are growing up (at last), a wedding finally occurs, the tiny white van is not totally lost – and Mrs Potokwani continues in her well-meaning but organising way.

And now onto the next holiday read …

Alexander McCall Smith
The Saturday big tent wedding party
London: Little, Brown, 2011
ISBN:  9781408702598

Andrew O’Hagan, The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe

Andrew O'Hagan 2009

O'Hagan 2009 (Courtesy: Treesbank, CC-BY 3.0, via wikipedia)

Andrew O’Hagan‘s The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe is a fun – though also serious – book, so I’m going to start with something trivial, just because it will provide a laugh to those who know me:

Like all dogs, I take for granted a certain amount of sanctioned laziness, but beaches, tanning, ice-cream? To me the beach is an unfixed term on a roasting spit, a stifling penance …

Yep, Maf and me, we don’t like beaches*! Enough digression, though … on to the book. First off, I liked it – but how to describe a book that roams so widely yet has such minimal plot? The story is told first person by Maf the dog. Maf (short for Mafia Honey) is a Maltese Terrier who was given (in reality as well as in fiction) to Marilyn Monroe by Frank Sinatra. In the first few chapters Maf moves from Scotland, where he is born, to the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (of the Bloomsbury set), to the Los Angeles home of Natalie Woods’ parents, to Frank Sinatra to … well, you know who now. In the rest of the book we follow Maf as he lives with Marilyn Monroe, in New York and Los Angeles, in the last couple of years of her life.

The book though is less about Marilyn Monroe (that “strange and unhappy creature”) than it is about America and the author’s exploration of the issues that occupied, or typefied, America in the early 1960s. They were years of hope and excitement, when people believed they could (re)make themselves (“Let me start again” say the migrants coming in through Ellis Island). John F Kennedy was elected in 1960 and the Civil Rights movement was about to take centre stage. But Maf sees the American paradox, sees that the ideals of liberty and happiness are by no means assured.

A repeated motif in the book is that of interior decoration – and its literal meaning can be overlaid with something a little more symbolic:

My hero Trotsky would have made a great interior decorator: after all, decoration is all about personality and history, the precise business of making, discovering, choosing the conditions of life and placing them just so. The best decorators finding it quite natural to inject a splash of the dialectical into their materialism.

It’s a clever motif because it encompasses the perspective (the floor) from which dogs (like Maf) see and describe the world, the (often superficial) fascination with home decoration (which sees, for example, Monroe going to Mexico to buy goods that she never unpacks), and the more existential notion of “decorating” or fashioning oneself.

Another motif running through the book is Trotsky. The above quote comes early in the book, but there are many other references, including this one quite late:

Wasn’t he [Trotsky] the god of small things and massive ideas, a cultivator of man’s better instincts? That, my friends, is the greatest work of the imagination: not action, but the thought of action.

Maf sees Trotsky as an enlightened being, who might, just might have shown us the way, had he been given the chance. But, let’s move on, because this book – chockablock as it is with philosophers, artists, writers, actors, critics and politicians – rarely stands still. We are continually on the move, either physically as Maf moves from place to place, or mentally as Maf explores idea after idea, such as fiction and art versus reality, tragedy versus comedy, humans versus animals, interior decoration, psychoanalysis, politics and fame, master versus servant (even in the great democracy). These are not didactically or artificially explored in a let’s-tick-off-another-obsession way. They are neatly integrated into the story as Marilyn, with Maf in tow, experiences the last years of her life. She dines with Frank Sinatra, discusses books with Carson McCullers, is treated by her therapists, attends Lee Strasberg’s Actors Studio, discusses civil rights with JFK, works with Cukor on Something’s gotta give, and so on. As far as I can tell, all the facts of her life presented here are “real” – as are the major cultural movers and shakers depicted within. It can be daunting to confront so many names in such a short space, but there are some good laughs here if you just go with the flow.

While the facts are interesting, however, what makes the book are Maf’s observations. Somehow, O’Hagan manages to imbue Maf with a persona, a voice, that works. It’s not twee or sentimental. It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, it’s knowing, and it’s clear-eyed but with compassion where compassion’s due. Maf notices for example the paradox contained in:

… the upper classes arguing in favor of radical politics while their servants set down their tea in front of them.

One of the issues that crops up regularly is the line between art/fiction and reality, which is not surprising in a book populated with actors and other artists. Early in the book Maf tells us that dogs**:

have none of that fatal human weakness for making large distinctions between what is real and what is imagined.

I like this. I fear that too often we polarise life/reality and art/imagination, particularly in literary analysis. We might express discomfort, for example, with a dog narrating a story about people! We “trust” realism, and we distrust or are uncomfortable with the opposite, with what we deem to be “not believable”.

A little later, playing with this idea from a different tack, he tells us:

We are what we imagine we are: reality itself is the true fiction.

Marilyn’s inability to sort this out probably contributes to her undoing. The book’s title suggests that we will get to understand Marilyn, but we don’t. She is, at the end, as elusive, “unearthly”, “abstracted”, as ever she was … which is probably the most realistic (ha?) way to go!

Maf says Marilyn taught him that:

A novel must be what only a novel can be – it must dream, it must open the mind.

Can’t say better than that … and this book, I reckon, gives it a good shot.

Andrew O’Hagan
The life and opinions of Maf the dog and of his friend Marilyn Monroe
London: Faber and Faber, 2011
ISBN: 9780571216000

* A footnote, emulating Maf whose footnotes add to the fun of the book. I do like to visit the coast, to look at the sea. It’s the beaches – the spending hours on them – that I don’t like.

** In a footnote, Maf tells us there’s been a long tradition of animals speaking for humans, listing such writers as Cervantes, Orwell, Woolf, Swift, Checkhov, Gogol and Tolstoy, just in case we decide to question a tale told in his voice!

John M. Duncan, A Virginia barbecue

Now for something different from the Library of America – a little 3-page excerpt, titled “A Virginia Barbecue”, from Scotsman John M. Duncan’s Travels through part of the United States and Canada in 1818 and 1819, which was published in 1823. In it, Duncan describes a barbecue to which he was invited by Bushrod (what a name, eh?) Washington, who was apparently a favourite nephew of (the) George.

Ground oven cooking, Kakadu

The original barbecue: Ground oven cooking in Kakadu National Park (Photographer: Me)

I wanted to read this for a number of reasons: I like to read about food; I like travel writing; I lived in Virgnia for two years; and I wanted to see what he meant by “barbecue”. The thing about “barbecue” is that in my experience Americans mean something different by it than we downunder do. In the brief introductory notes to Duncan’s piece, Library of America informs us that by the middle of the 19th century regional differences were appearing and that “debates about the best meat (pork for the South, beef for Texans), the proper smoke (cool or hot), the best sauce (thick and tomatoey in the Mexican manner or vinegar-steeped with hot peppers in the manner of the Atlantic seaboard), and the appropriate accompaniments were already beginning to rage”. Duncan, however, was a bit early for this debate so he simply describes what he sees:

The meat to be barbecued is split open and pierced with two long slender rods, upon which it is suspended across the mouth of the pits, and turned from side to side till it is thoroughly broiled. The hickory tree gives, it is said, a much stronger heat than coals, and when it is kindled is almost without smoke.

And, anyhow, he is not specifically interested in describing the cooking itself but in conveying the whole experience. From our 21st century point of view, he seems completely unconscious of the disparity between the black workers slaving over the barbecues and the guests (presumably all white) dancing, eating and drinking. This is not totally surprising, given the period, although William Wilberforce, back in England, would have been full throttle on his abolitionist campaign. Here are some of the ways Duncan describes the black workers:

…a whole colony of black servants …

Servants? Or, slaves?

… black men, women and children, were busied with various processes of sylvan cookery…

“Sylvan” is, to me anyhow, a rather poetic word for forest connoting a sense of romantic idyll that is somewhat belied by the reality of the situation.

Leaving the busy negroes at their tasks – a scene by the way which suggested a tolerable idea of an encampment of Indians preparing for a feast after the spoils of the chase.

A more socially or politically aware writer would probably, even at that time, have seen the irony in this comparison, but I don’t think Duncan did. I’m not trying to play politically correct revisionist games here, but rather reflect on how writing like this can convey meaning that was not necessarily intended at the time. Such writing – in the way it documents practices and attitudes – can be a real mine for researchers!

Duncan then describes the dancing – mainly cotillion – and the dining arrangements. I found it a little confusing when he wrote that “few except those who wish to dance choose the first course; watchfulness to anticipate the wants of the ladies, prevent those who sit down with them from accomplishing much themselves”. That is, they don’t get to eat much. Being “too little acquainted with the tactics of a barbecue, and somewhat too well inclined to eat”, he joins this first course. I had to read this a couple of times before I realised (at least I think I’m right) that “first course” actually means “first sitting”. It appears that when the ladies arise, all are expected to “vacate their seats”. The “new levy succeeds” (that is, as I read it, the next sitting) and many of these diners contrive to sit through the next “signal” to rise, thereby managing to get a good feed!

He also describes the drinking but makes it clear that while there was “jollity”, he saw no “intemperance”. He specifically states that this is so for the members of the judiciary, such as Judge Washington, who were present. Duncan makes such a point of this that I wondered whether he “protesteth too much”. I’m guessing though that it’s more a case of having his eye on his market: there was a strong temperance movement in early 19th century Virginia.

This piece is included in an anthology titled American food writing: An anthology with classic recipes. It would be fascinating to read more…

Alexander McCall Smith, Tea time for the traditionally built

Alexander McCall Smith said at the literary event I attended recently that if he achieves nothing else in his life he is glad he introduced the concept “traditionally built” because it has brought such comfort to many women (particularly, he says with a twinkle in his eye, in America!).

Tea time for the traditionally built is the tenth book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series – which is not a bad achievement for an idea that started out as a short story! The eleventh in the series, The Double Comfort Safari Club, is now out (in Australia at least) and McCall Smith has no plans yet to finish the series. When you’re on a good thing …

I am not, as I said in my recent post on McCall Smith, normally a reader of series, but I have made an exception for this series and forgive it the things that would normally make me steer clear of books like this, such as simple language and repetition of theme, because, well, because it is gentle and generous. Generosity is, in fact, an important quality for McCall Smith. At the talk I attended he said that he rarely based his characters on real people because that would be “an abuse of authorial role”! Tell Truman Capote that! When he does draw on real people, he said, it is to paint that person in a positive light. One such example is Mma Potokwani, matron of the Orphanage that features in the Detective Agency series, who is clearly a woman he admires.

Anyhow, onto Tea time. It’s a gentle read – with the plot this time focusing on a football team that is suddenly losing every game after having been consistently successful. The owner, Mr Molofololo (great name eh?), suspects a traitor in the ranks and Mma Ramotswe is, of course, called on to investigate. Suffice it to say that she does and the outcome isn’t quite what Mr M suspected.

I’ll say just one more thing about these books and that is that McCall Smith does create “rounded” characters…even the admirable ones have their flaws and this, I think, gives his books a little depth that can engage, even though the language and style do not offer the challenge than I prefer in my reading. Reading one a year is a nice thing to do – and keeps me in touch with a writer who knows the world has problems but who likes to think that people can be good, and that there is hope yet!

Alexander McCall Smith
Tea time for the traditionally built
London: Abacus, 2009
ISBN: 9780349119977

Conversing with “a slightly shambolic dandy”

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…