You see I’m one of those idiotic individuals that leaves all of their packing to the very last minute. I have a plane to catch in five and a bit hours and in that time I have to hunt down my passport (my passport, like the Scarlet Pimpernel, is a master of disguise and deception) rustle up a few pairs of clean boxer shorts and most importantly I have to select a novel to dive into whilst I’m away. I’m going to Italy for the week – yes, very nice – but time is running thin here in Scozia and on second thoughts forget the pants – the book is more important.
I scan the miniature skylines of my bookshelf, which has three shelves, of which I am currently a little way through the second. ‘My Second Shelf’: I have always thought this would be a very suitable title for a candid biography of Sean Connery. (Have I really always thought that? – or is this just my sleep deprived brain throwing out maudlin miscellany? You are a very naughty brain, now go to bed!) Right, to work.
So what have we got to play with here; let’s see now dum di dum di dum the Americans are always good for a romp aren’t they – Hunter S. Thompson, Hemingway maybe, Bret Easton Ellis. Possibilities, all possibilities. I’m off the Russians at the moment so Fyodor and his mates can all breathe a sigh of relief. There’s always Martin Amis I suppose; I still haven’t read Lionel Asbo yet – but there are whispers that he’s on the wane. Ooh – Muriel Spark, very tempting, always full of surprises. And Orwell, mmm, Orwell … – or, well, I suppose I could just pack in the search now, get some sleep and pick up a copy of 50 Shades of Grey at the airport. Good thinking.
I decide in the end, after much head-scratching and befrazzlement to plump for an old favourite, a very special and witty novel called 44 Scotland Street by Alexander Mcall Smith. I had always meant to reread this Edinburgh-rich book and I decided that now was the time.
A moment please: one never remembers exactly what happens in a novel after putting it down. Months or years later there is only an afterglow of love or laughter, or sadness perhaps, contempt in some cases, indifference in others. And as I slipped out this book from its cosy nook on my second shelf and flicked though it (remembering suddenly the lovely Ian McIntosh illustrations that punctuate its inviting bite-sized chapters) it was as if a friend’s calm hand had fallen upon my shoulder. You’re going to enjoy this, remember? said the ghostly voice accompanying that ghostly hand.
Mcall Smith is something of a polymath. You could say (or you might say) our nations equivalent to Stephen Fry (although in my opinion a good deal less insufferable and relentlessly telivisionified than old Melchy). He was born in Zimbabwe and educated there and in Scotland; and for many years he was Professor of Medical Law at The University of Edinburgh and a member of a number of national and international bodies concerned with bioethics. His books include works on medical law, criminal law and philosophy, as well as numerous books for children, collections of short stories, and novels. He has lectured at various universities in Africa, including Botswana, where he lived for a time. His big break as a novelist (the vocation to which he commits most of his time these days) was The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency – a lighthearted novel of ratiocination set in Botswana starring the inimitable and much loved Mma Ramotswe. He has since written an entire series of novels devoted to Mma Ramotswe and her milieu.
So what is it I like about 44 Scotland Street then? For this is just one of a brace of popular novels that Mcall Smith has published in the last decade – he writes something like four or five books a year. Talk about prolific. I hum and ho about a weekly blog post.
Well one of the things I admire about this book is that its first public airing was as a serial novel published in daily installments in the Scotsman newspaper. This just strikes me as a fantastically clever idea – to enliven the old tradition of serialisation. And what the daily installment format means is that when inserted between two covers the novel qua novel is eminently digestible. It is the literary equivalent of the platter that Angus Lordie (the novel’s resident painter and roué) presents his guests with before the climactic scene in which the provenance of a curious painting is revealed:
He welcomed his guests with a tray of devils on horseback and small oat-cakes on which thick-cut slices of smoked salmon had been balanced. Then there were crackers of boiled egg, ersatz caviar, and small circles of mayonnaise. All this was provided in generous quantities.
This bite-sized quality that 44 Scotland Street possesses has returned to my reading life at just the right moment. I have just come off the back of a month long tête-à-tête with Vladimir Nabokov’s great masterpiece Lolita, which – to continue along the line of culinary metaphors – felt rather like sucking on an everlasting gobstopper; incredibly sweet, exasperating at times and of course, difficult to stomach.
44 Scotland Street is set in Edinburgh’s New Town, which as the blurb on the back of my edition explains is ‘a busy bohemian corner of Edinburgh, where the old haute bourgeosie finds itself having to rub shoulders with students, poets and portraitists’. Add to this mix a narcissistic philandering estate agent, an incredibly pushy mother with more than a passing interest in Kleinian child psychology and a host of other oddballs and innocents and you have the recipe for what is, I think, a brilliant and mercenary exercise in social comedy. This is undoubtedly a humane and sensitive book, but it is also a quiet indictment of certain distasteful elements in Edinburgh society, hypocrisy, snobbery, ageism; forms of ‘poshlost’ as the Russians might say – a word in which pretentiousness and philistine vulgarity join hands.
The central conceit in the novel is the idea of the shared living space, shared, of course, by people who don’t necessarily see eye to eye on everything. The living space in question is a smart address on Scotland Street. Although the action in the novel is by no means limited to this elegant locale. Thus we are taken to places as diverse as the South Edinburgh Conservative Association Ball at The Braid Hills Hotel, the novelist Ian Rankin’s house in Morningside and, spectacularly, the system of abandoned railway tunnels that lie hidden beneath the city.
We are introduced into this world via Pat – a twenty year old on her second gap year and a source of some worry to her parents. When she is accepted as a tenant at number 44 she isn’t sure how long she’ll last. This is mainly down to Bruce, her narcissistic flatmate, an estate agent, who is all but unbearable at times and yet infuriatingly handsome. Downstairs lives Domenica Macdonald, a sort of worldly wise Edinburgh grand dame and next door to her the insanely pretentious Irene whose precocious five year old Bertie is in therapy after setting fire to his daddy’s copy of the Guardian.
One of the things that this book gets absolutely spot on in my opinion is the way that its characters are ultimately the centre of their own worlds. We are all fascinated by our own lives, our own stories, we are all looking out for no.1.The narcissist is but an extreme example of this. And the clash of these separate worlds, each with their own rules and shibboleths, makes for great comedy in the right hands. And also great poignancy:
For a moment neither spoke, as each felt sympathy for the other, as the same conclusion – quite remarkably – occurred to each: here is a person, another who is so important to himself, to herself, and so weak, and ordinary, and human as we all are.
44 Scotland Street is a good book. I’m glad I picked it up again. But one last thing. I can’t help thinking that in one of the future novels in the series (there are a few volumes now) perhaps there might be space for a plucky young journo working for an Edinburgh lifestyle magazine? Now there’s an idea…