Last month, I went to a Writers’ Victoria event, held at The Atheneum to hear Melbourne’s Toni Jordan in conversation with Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith. She introduced McCall Smith by listing his writing accomplishments first:
- 60 adult novels published,
- 50 children’s novels
- and the acclaimed 44 Scotland Street series
- his work translated into 46 languages
Jordan concluded her introduction with “Alexander has been described as a literary phenomenon, a force of nature, and an endless source of joy around the world.”
Needless to say, the filled-to-capacity theatre burst into rapturous applause proving that his fans agreed – and he hadn’t yet uttered a word!
Once McCall Smith began speaking, the conversation became very one-sided – in the words of my late mother Alexander McCall Smith can ‘talk the hind legs off a donkey’ and I’ll use her lovely Scottish word meant in the kindest of ways, he’s “a blether.”
Although McCall Smith does not talk for the sake of talking, his warm-hearted view of humanity, his intelligence, a keen sense of humour, and wide-ranging life experience ensure that he is a fabulous raconteur.
We hung on every deliciously entertaining word and later queued up outside for a few minutes with the man himself when he agreed to sign books and pose for photographs. (The publisher arranged for a young man to do the duty of dealing with numerous digital devices!)
Kindness and generosity two words that come easily to the lips regarding this prolific author dressed in an off-white suit, highly polished leather shoes and exuding genteel elegance as he relaxed comfortably in the spotlight.
He introduced himself to the audience by saying if people had come to the wrong place he didn’t mind if they left and then proceeded to tell the first of many anecdotes of the evening.
‘Turning up at the wrong venue is easy to do,’ he said. “A few months ago, a man came up to me at an author’s event in New York and said he’d enjoyed my lecture although he had booked to hear an author talk about the atom bomb!”
As the laughter subsided, Toni asked Alexander, when he began writing books and leaning back into his chair, he launched into a story he’d obviously told many times.
He sent his first manuscript off when eight years old. “ It was unpublishable, of course, and probably all of two pages long. A melodrama along the lines of ‘He’s gone’ and explaining who, why and where…”
He received a polite rejection letter from the publisher, “Carry on working.” McCall Smith laughed when he said, “at least in those days publishers answered every submission and gave encouragement along with rejection!”
This story led to another personal snippet revealing again his kindness and cheeky sense of humour. A seven-year-old boy knocked on his door one day holding a book he had written.
“Go and show Mr McCall Smith,’ said the boy’s mother from the background, “he’s a writer.”
The book was two sentences long, called The Great Toffee Theft.
‘Great title,’ he told the boy.
The story was ‘A man stole a toffee. The police came and arrested him.’ The End.
The Scottish author Ian Rankin, writer of novels about the detective Rebus, lives two doors up from McCall Smith in Edinburgh, so Alexander sent the boy up to Ian’s house advising, “Mr Rankin’s into crime, he’ll be better placed to give you feedback on your manuscript.”
This recollection was the perfect segue into stories about how he sometimes inserts real people into his novels ‘with their permission, of course.’
Like all writers, he draws on life experiences for plots, characters and setting, but you can tell he has fun with all this too. The first time he put Rankin into a novel was as a cameo when he bought a valuable stolen painting from a charity shop. When Ian realised it had been stolen he returned it to the original owner. Rankin’s comment was “I wouldn’t be so decent if it was that valuable!”
In another story, Alexander had one of the Queen’s Royal Archers, ‘a doddery bunch now’ fire an arrow that goes astray and hits Ian Rankin on the shoulder. He is helped by young Bertie, one of McCall Smith’s regular heroes who recognises Rankin as a famous author because ‘a lot of his books are in the window of the local secondhand bookshop for 50p.’
Ian’s feedback? “Not true, they’d be at least £1!”
McCall Smith asked Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, (2007-2014) if he could put him in a story. ” He seemed quite chuffed.” McCall Smith had the First Minister save young Bertie from a runaway truck when the young boy froze while crossing the road. The manuscript was sent to the First Minister’s office for approval and he got a reply back in 45 minutes, “very satisfactory”. (The fastest bureaucratic approval on record!)
However, he tries not to use real people he’s read about in his writing and said, “it is rude not to Google because it implies they’re not worth Googling.” He puts in a name plus what scandal they may be involved in just to check he won’t be offending a real live person … at this point he strayed into the murky waters of Australian politics by suggesting with mock outrage that ‘the bloke with the hat (Barnaby Joyce) has had some unkind words said about him.”
Toni managed to ask a question about McCall Smith’s writing, in particular about the serial novel and the much-loved 44 Scotland Street series.
Serial novels, a genre not that common nowadays but popular in the times of Charles Dickens, and also with Tolstoy, Trollope and Flaubert.
Dickens used it as a common way to earn a living, publishing a chapter a week in a newspaper or magazine, and generally ending with a cliffhanger. This was pre-television and so he was writing the soap operas of the day. Every chapter 12,000 words and often characters fell asleep at end of the chapter – “soporific writing” said McCall Smith, “because in synchronicity, the readers often fell asleep too!”
The books would be available in libraries and the cheeky public would correct any errors they found.
There is a writer in the United States from San Francisco who revived the serial novels for the newspaper San Francisco Chronicles. Alexander met him at a writers’ convention and was advised: “Don’t write serial novels”.
Advice McCall Smith chose to ignore and when he returned to Scotland he began writing chapters in the series 44 Scotland Street.
Producing a regular chapter can be a lot of pressure and he tries to ‘have a few up his sleeve’ but that doesn’t always mean meeting deadlines is easy.
Alexander was approached by Cunard shipping to sail around South America for free and be a ‘celebrity’ guest aboard the ship. “Now if they write to you,” he said, “always say, yes.”
He had committed himself to writing a serial book but the Internet dropped out around Cape Horn. He asked the audience if they had heard of the Bermuda Triangle. This experience was similar because there was “no cloud”. He was writing instalments of Scotland Street and luckily always had some in hand or he would have missed all of his instalments for that period.
He suggested people try writing a book this way each instalment building up – a chapter a day soon leads to a book!
We shall change all that… because it is possible to change the world, if one is determined enough, and if one sees with sufficient clarity just what has to be changed.”
The Kalahari Typing School for men, Alexander McCall Smith
Many people in the audience, discovered McCall Smith from his writing about Botswana, a country where he lived and one he has “a real affection for.” He still visits regularly.
His books about The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency introduced the African country to many readers, and many readers to author McCall Smith. Internationally, he became a household name.
It was the first of McCall Smith’s books I read and this year is the 20th anniversary of the first novel published in 1998 but “written and heartfelt in 1996”.
On his website, he exhorts us to ‘celebrate 20 years of Humanity. Kindness. Humour. Forgiveness. And sheer Joy.’ And I can remember how wonderful the first book was – how refreshing to read a positive book about an African country where the protagonist, Precious Ramotswe (wonderful name) was female, not precious but ordinary and down-to-earth, yet she had an extraordinary dream, which she persisted to make reality with intelligence and drive.
The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series started life as a short story written for friends but took hold of its author and grew first to one novel and then, over the space of twenty years, to nineteen (the nineteenth book, The Colours of All the Cattle, to be published later this year). The characters have won the hearts of readers around the globe and together, the eighteen volumes published so far have become one of the world’s most successful series, with over 20 million copies sold in English and translations into 46 languages. Written as a long love-letter to a country and culture which he admires, Alexander has no plans to bring this series to an end anytime soon.
Precious Ramotswe, that kind and cheerful woman of traditional build, is the founder of Botswana’s first and only ladies’ detective agency. Her methods may not be conventional, and her manner not exactly Miss Marple, but she’s got warmth, wit and canny intuition on her side, not to mention Mr J. L. B. Matekoni, the charming proprietor of Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors and Mma Makutsi her able assistant who never tires of telling people that she graduated with a mark of 97% from the Botswana Secretarial College.
Alexander explained how the first edition of the original book had a print run of 1500 but now has 25 to 30 million copies. He was a bit worried the publisher was being too optimistic about the book and promoting it, especially when they sent him to the USA.
Referring to the United States, he said when he visited to promote his books they were friendly but he discovered they love titles and in that country ‘everybody is a vice president – even if they just look after the coffee or the photocopying machine or publicity!’
He was invited to lunch with all the vice presidents and the meeting extended from 11 to 4 p.m. He knew then that the book would take off, so to celebrate he went out and bought new shoes “two of them” for $140.
He was staying at a club related to a membership he had in Scotland. His room was not too far from the bathroom but his American publicist was mortified “You are sharing a bathroom!?”
Now when he goes to America he has his own bathroom – his books have let him step up his comfort level. However, he considered sharing a bathroom an important stage to go through. It builds character, he noted with a smile and proceeded to reminisce about his student days.
(For many years Alexander was a professor of Medical Law and worked in universities in the UK and abroad before turning his hand to writing fiction. He has written and contributed to more than 100 books including specialist academic titles.)
He has shared with “dirty people, experienced bathrooms with unidentified hairs (let’s not go there!) and fridges filled with ghastly food,” although flatmates have been great. He then added his humorous take, “Meet them later in life and they are transformed. But do you read about their convictions?”
McCall Smith’s generous writing and dry humor, his gentleness and humanity, and his ability to evoke a place and a set of characters without caricature or condescension have endeared his books to readers
New York Times
Toni managed to steer McCall Smith back onto writing and some of his other talents. He talked about being on a boat in Africa and passing the camp of two authors who were experts on baboons. He shouted across the water, “I have read Baboon Metaphysics.” This resulted in a very rare invitation to stay overnight at the campsite and learn more from the authors and their research.
The book explains how powerful female baboons are dominant. They are ambitious and for McCall Smith, not unlike Lady Macbeth so he wrote an opera about a troupe of baboons.
He collaborated to produce a chamber opera with music by Tom Cunningham to his libretto. Set in the Botswana Okavango Delta, it tells the story of the struggle for power among competing baboons in their matriarchal society—thus drawing parallels with the Macbeth story.
THE OKAVANGO MACBETH
Written for Botswana to appease his fascination with primatology, and an idea of baboon people.
In 2008, Alexander set up a small opera house in the bush just outside Gaborone, in Botswana. “It is really a garage converted with 60 seats,” but he hosted the Premiere of his opera which he said is “a really terrible opera for musically challenged people.” However, “they perform and travel with it so it can’t be all that bad until people find out what I say is true!”
The project was undertaken jointly with David Slater, a long-time resident of Botswana who had made a major contribution over the years to music in that country. The opera house was housed in an old converted transport garage discovered by Alexander when he was looking for places similar to the garage featured in The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. It was converted into a modest auditorium with seating for sixty.
For four years, The No. 1 Ladies’ Opera House gave local singers a chance to perform in opera and in regular concerts. Botswana has a tradition of choral singing. “There are many wonderful singers there, and this gave them the opportunity to show and develop their talents. It also gave people in Gaborone the chance to see the occasional opera, something which until then, they did not have.”
The Opera House remained open until 2012. It is now closed.
He has had many collaborations, especially with composers and has worked in other branches of the arts for the last decade. For Scotland At Night he wrote the poems and Tom Cunningham wrote the music.
He loves music and created an orchestra from other people who love music ‘but are not very good.’ The conductor stopped them once because they were all playing different music! RTOM, he said – really terrible orchestral music!
Alexander and his wife Elizabeth were the founding members of the Really Terrible Orchestra, a hugely popular amateur orchestral ensemble based in Edinburgh city centre.
A bassoonist, sousaphonist and contrabassoonist, Alexander, inspired by the pleasure his own children seemed to get from orchestral playing, worked to get the ensemble going in 1995. At the time it had just 10 players and rehearsed music for the sheer fun and enjoyment of it.
The main ethos of the RTO is clear; it’s an ensemble for those who have been prevented from playing music, either through lack of talent or some other factor, to play in the company of players of a similarly terrible standard. The name was given, thankfully, to ensure that audiences would know that what they see is what they hear.
Now with 65 players and a terrible international reputation to uphold, the orchestra is more in demand than ever. Rehearsing fortnightly the ensemble is currently under the musical direction of ‘Sir’ Richard Neville-Towle.
Last year in Stockholm Sweden, he was literally astonished how many joined in the RTO. They always get a professional conductor – ‘one who’s doing the country a service.’ Socially, it is great – two trumpeters married; the viola and the double bass also met and married – the couples even produced babies!
The breadth of his body of work vividly evokes places and characters who are infused with humanity, decency, wit and humour
The National Arts Club citation
We were then treated to a performance of one of McCall Smith’s poems. He announced that it would be brief because “Often when you read a poem, even a brief one, it is a signal for people to leave.”
The poem was from his annual pamphlet that he circulates to friends. He makes 800 copies but “Actually I have only 14 friends.” The rest of the copies go to strangers.
He always puts a poem at the end of the Scotland Street books.
He was amused by a sign he saw from the taxi in LA that said, HYPNOTHERAPY NEXT RIGHT.
He loves signs and they often inspire a poem. He especially loves signs in other languages with the English translation – many of these don’t quite get the nuances of English or are more poetic than English. He uses this when he transposes them to include in his poem.
He remembered one that was in French hanging from a rickety fence above a cliff. In English it should read ‘do not lean against’ but the translated sign beneath the French read ‘do not lean again’. This much more intriguing and realistic considering the state and site of the fence!
Another sign about urinating was translated as “No Pissing” “How irrepressible and unrepentant” said McCall.
The poem he read was inspired by the sign in LA and was set on an aeroplane. He made fun of the choice of words pilots use – “at this time we commence our descent” instead of “now we are going to land.” The poem, telling the story of a flight and landing explored the idea of pilots speaking in poetic language instead of bland words. Like most of his poems, this one was humorous and brief, with a little satire.
After reading his poem, Alexander addressed the audience: ‘Any questions or complaints? You can complain.”
People queued to ask him questions, each one an adoring fan.
The first question was about his Safaris to Botswana. He’s done 4 or 5 and “They’re lots of fun.” The next one is in September for one week. They visit three towns and he loves meeting readers and loves Botswana.
He was asked about Arthur Upfield and his character Boney who was in a series of books. He remembered reading them but it was a long time ago and he didn’t know it had been turned into a television series.
He said crime fiction is about place, and he likes Keating’s books set in Bombay. “A place of eminence and a strong character are the two most important elements of crime fiction.” With a wry smile, he acknowledged the popularity of Scandinavian Noir yet, “I was in Stockholm and didn’t see one murder!”
When he was asked what he thought of the TV series of his Number One Ladies Detective Agency rather than criticise he commented that there was also a full-length movie made. Unfortunately, the director died on the day of the film premiere. The TV series “did a good job but the film was very respectful to the book.”
He visited the film set and watched how they did some scenes 15 times to get it right. The funeral scene repeated again and again because everybody was so moved. Even the cameramen cried and they had to redo it. Anthony Magellan, the director of the film really captured the essence of the characters and story and he also got good actors for the film.
And the evening was over – a delightful “conversation” fittingly ended while talking about Precious Ramotswe and Botswana. They left the stage too soon but then delightful evenings are never long enough!
I was thrilled to have my few minutes with the author and to buy a couple more of his wonderful novels. In a world where we are bombarded daily with increasingly sad news escaping with a Mccall Smith novel soothes the spirit because it reaffirms the existence of a lot of wonderful, kind, gentle, and genteel folk and entertaining stories don’t have to be angst-ridden with mainly imperfect, unlikeable characters.
‘It was Ian Rankin who claimed that as global politics becomes more turbulent, the world will increasingly find itself in need of Alexander McCall Smith’s heart-warming novels, and he is right’
Inspired by Alexander’s reading of signs and creating poetry I decided to make an attempt to record the evening in verse and pics – after all, April is Poetry Month!
The Pursuit of Happiness
My dancing self visited Melbourne city
to listen to Alexander McCall Smith
an author known for his savoir-faire,
worldly and renowned teller of tales
that captivate. Colourful, uplifting
they counteract an oft bleak world…
I walk past the majestic Town Hall
hosting Hermès At Work
an exhibition about the birth
of the international luxury brand.
Displays of handmade objets incroyable.
Admission free to anyone who’ll listen
as clever artisans tell their stories
of commitment to craft
of style, beauty and excellence.
I doubt the homeless huddled
and begging from nearby doorways
will take up their offer…
Along the street, I stride
passing a profusion of flowers
of red, gold and orange blossoms
their subtle perfume and prettiness
a defence against the toxic traffic
and soulless concrete jungle
Utility bollards appropriated
by street artists and decorated
exhort passersby to celebrate
the timeless beauty and spirit
of Victoria’s Koori people
stalwarts of faith and courage
meaningful silhouettes and shadows
sun, moon, stars, crosses and hands
images of fertility and life cycles
unlike the ugly graffiti
meaningless tags from non-artists
seeking celebrity or notoriety.
I reach Melbourne’s Atheneum
An embodiment of Emperor Hadrian’s
seat of intellectual refinement.
A queue of literary patrons
wriggles around the block –
their joyous anticipation catching.