Alexander McCall Smith reveals how crucial a role Edinburgh has played in his life as an author.
I had an unusual childhood. I grew up in Zimbabwe, which was wonderful. It gave me an abiding interest in Africa; I certainly couldn’t have written the Botswana books without that influence.
I value my memories of the African bush, in particular of this wonderful range of hills just north of the Botswana border where I spent a lot of time – it’s a place of great atmosphere and beauty. I still visit Africa most years. I acquired a small, 50-seat theatre in Cape Town, The Rosebank, and I support the theatre group there when I can.
I was a pretty keen reader as a child. I read all the usual books that boys read, such as the William books – I thought they were terrific.
I was so proud of the first book I owned – a funny little blue book called The Boys’ Book of Merchant Shipping. It must have been one of the most boring books ever written, with little pictures and diagrams of prominent merchant ships with their tonnage and their goods. But I loved it.
As I got older I became a really keen horseman. I rode every day in my youth. I don’t ride any more, though I was very pleased to find out, in Jamaica a few years back, that I still could.
I had a wonderful afternoon riding through forests and along beaches and even into the sea.
My family are Scottish, so when I left Africa, Edinburgh seemed like the natural place to come to study law at the university. We have a long connection with the universities here; my daughter Emily is the fourth generation to have enjoyed an association with Edinburgh Medical School – there was my grandfather, my wife’s father, my wife and then Emily.
Edinburgh is a very easy city to fall in love with. It’s so beautiful and intriguing – it takes a bit of getting to know, I think. In the past it wasn’t the sort of city you would immediately understand. Some cities are very open, but Edinburgh takes more discovering, I think.
One of the things that always strikes me about the city when I come back from my travels is just how neat and tidy everything looks. It’s well kept, something you tend to get used to, but when you’ve been away it’s actually very striking.
I found the idea of studying law an attractive one. Law is a very interesting discipline; there’s something in it for everyone, whether it be a human interest or an intellectual interest. I was a professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh University, and I was very much involved in a number of committees until around 10 years ago, when I had a dramatic change.
That was the point when I had to choose whether to continue with my career or not, and I decided to become a full-time writer. I took an unpaid leave of absence initially, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to go back because the demands were such, plus it was a marvellous opportunity to write what I wanted to write. I’d always written in my spare time, which is often the case with writers – they have a parallel career.
But then the books took off rather dramatically. I had written a few children’s books and I had a collection of short stories published by Canongate way back, so that was all happening in the background. I remember the precise moment I knew my life was going to change.
I was in New York, and I was visiting my publishers. I had expected I would only have a brief cup of coffee with them. But I discovered the whole day was planned for various events, and that they’d hired a whole restaurant for lunch. There were all these publicity people there.
I left their office at half past four in the afternoon and just went out into the street, and I realised that things were happening. It was quite a moment, really. You don’t always remember key moments in your life, when you’re at a crossroads. I’d become used to my lot in life and I was perfectly happy with it; as far as the writing was concerned, I had a small readership, though some of the children’s books were quite successful. I thought that was where I was going to be, and then it completely changed.
The catalyst for that was America. I had written the first No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency which was published by Polygon, the small press that at the time was owned by Edinburgh University Press, and it had a print run of only 1,500 copies. I’ll always remember when they came back to me and said they’d got rid of them and they might just do a reprint of another 500 – I thought, ‘Steady on now.’
But there’s something like twenty million copies in print now. They were distributed in America by Columbia University Press at the back of their catalogue, and suddenly they started reordering and reordering. Polygon didn’t quite know what was going on. Then, when I’d written four in the series, the New York Times did a full-page article about the books.
I think readers like Precious Ramotswe (the protagonist of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency), because her story is a gentle one; she represents somebody with whom you’d like to sit down and have a cup of tea. People have become very accustomed to an in-your-face, confrontational approach to life, and this is different. But it is a way of life, and a view of life that I’d seen.
People sometimes say to me, ‘You’re looking at the world through rose-tinted spectacles.’ And I can see why they say that. But people with experience of sub-Saharan Africa and that part of the world recognise what I’m writing about. I get criticised for being too positive – and people are welcome to their opinions – but when they say I’m unrealistic, I actually take the view that I’m not. It just so happens that I’m concentrating on a particular part of life that really does exist.
Most of my books are set in Scotland and you could make the same argument in relation to those. People could say: ‘You’re not writing about the problems.’ That’s true – I’m not writing about the problems that many other people are writing about very well – but I am writing about a form of life that does take place.
The vast majority of people lead straightforward lives where they aren’t confrontational, and they don’t lead dysfunctional lives – dysfunction isn’t the default position. We’ve got to read about the gritty side of life, and the gritty side of life does exist – of course it does – but it’s not the soul of life. There’s a much larger, totally functional slice of life, which is people leading purposeful lives with good humour. Literature has to be broad. You’ve got to have all these elements.
44 Scotland Street came about as a result of a conversation I had in California in Amy Tan’s house with Armistead Maupin, whose Tales of the City stories were serialised in the San Francisco Chronicle. He said, ‘Whatever you do, don’t write a serial novel.’ The Herald had asked me to write an article about that particular trip to America, and in it I mentioned that it’s a pity newspapers don’t publish serial novels any more. Shortly after that, Iain Martin, who was then editor of The Scotsman, invited me to lunch. ‘You’re on,’ he said. ‘Write us a serial novel.’
I chose Scotland Street as the setting not only because it’s a nice name, but also because it’s an interesting street in terms of Edinburgh’s New Town. Some parts of the New Town have become very gentrified, but not Scotland Street so much. It still had the old balance – a slightly bohemian feel to it, that ‘east end’ New Town feel. I thought it suited; and I just wanted to write about an Edinburgh tenement.
All fiction writers extract and exaggerate to some extent, so the types of people I’ve put in the series are perhaps exaggerated a bit, but they are still recognisable.
We’ve got Angus Lordie, the portrait painter – I’ve known people quite like that in the old days in the Scottish Arts Club; and Domenica MacDonald, the anthropologist – she’s a rather intellectual, academic person, and I’ve met people like her too. Irene Pollock, Bertie’s mother, is the pushy Edinburgh mother – they exist! You only have to go to the school gates to see them. It seems there were a lot of them who were quite worried when Irene was created.
One woman even came up to me and said, ‘I’m not Irene, am I?’ Then there’s Big Lou, who came from Arbroath and runs the café – I can see her, I’ve met highly competent people like her.
So I started to write the series, but I had no idea that it would take off quite like it did. I thought it would just interest my readers in the east of Scotland, but it’s very popular all over the world now. I think that’s because it’s a contained world, and people can identify the boundaries of that world. These are universal human traits the characters are showing. It’s like life anywhere, in a sense.
Some years back, I was at the Jaipur Literature Festival, and there was a big dinner at the end, spectacularly done with painted elephants and all that. It was a buffet – you went up and helped yourself – and there was this table of Indian ladies in their beautiful saris. I filled my plate and went to sit with these Indian ladies, and one of them turned to me and said, ‘What we want to know is this – what’s going to happen to Bertie?’ Bertie, the son of the pushy Irene, chimes there because Indian mothers are very ambitious for their children. He’s also very popular in America – lots of Americans visit Edinburgh and come to look for 44 Scotland Street.
The books are very popular on the continent in French and Italian, and in Australia as well, so what I thought of as being a specific and entirely Scottish thing turns out to be more universal. It points to the fact that Edinburgh is a very good setting for something that could be international.
We’re rather accustomed to things being set elsewhere, such as London or New York, but actually many people visit Edinburgh, so we can hold our heads up in that company.
I was asked by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland to write a book about my love for the city and produced A Work of Beauty: Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh. The RCAHMS has a wonderful collection of old photographs and engravings, so there are quite a lot of photographs in the book, which is all about the city and my experience of it. I loved writing it.
In the old days I used to go to the Doric Tavern on Market Street, when Mr McGuffie was running it. There’s a picture from the RCAHMS archives in the book with three of the Doric’s waitresses in it, and I recognise them all. I remember the gingham tablecloths and the waitresses’ black dresses and white aprons.
When I lived on Cumberland Street I used to go to the Cumberland Bar when it was called the Tilted Wig, and as a student I used to go to Bennets Bar, next to the King’s Theatre, which had a great atmosphere. Nowadays I have lunch once a week or so in Glass & Thompson at the top of Dundas Street (I have set scenes in my books there), and there’s a very nice little French bakery-cum-coffee house in Bruntsfield called La Barantine that I like to go to.
When I go on my book tours, I meet lots of people who tell me that when they’ve been in Edinburgh they’ve gone to look for the sights from the Isabel Dalhousie novels, or that they’ve visited the city and now feel they know the background to these books.
We even get people who come to hear the Really Terrible Orchestra – we do a concert at the Fringe, and we’ve had crowds of 700 this year, for the worst amateur orchestra in the world.
I get lots of interesting and often very moving letters from readers. Some have written to say they’ve used one of Angus Lordie’s poems at their wedding (I always end a Scotland Street book with a poem) or that they have used something from one of my books for a reading at a funeral. I’m delighted at that; it makes all the difference when people are able to say that.
A Work of Beauty: Alexander McCall Smith’s Edinburgh can be purchased HERE.
(This feature was originally published in 2016)