Today, Friday, I managed to grab a few minutes with Alexander McCall-Smith, the prolific and perennially bestselling author who was about to appear in the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre for a conversation, about his latest works – which include the latest 44 Scotland Street book, Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers, a new children’s book featuring Precious and the Mystery of the Missing Lion, and his big project The Scottish Tapestry – with James Naughtie.
McCall-Smith, usually better known as Sandy, was sporting a green tie with a giraffe motif in celebration of the fact it was the 15th anniversary of the publication of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
I began with a question prompted by something I had only recently learned, which was that his Law and Medical Ethics is the standard textbook on the subject. With many years as the expert on the subject, I would assume that he must have delved into some pretty depressing cases, which seems at odds with the upbeat tone of his books
You write about the good things in life most of the time, very little bad befalls people in your books, with perhaps two deaths across the whole range. With your work with medical ethics, you must have seen quite a lot of the bad side of life. Is it in some way a response to the fact you have known about a lot of bad things that you write about the good things.
“That’s very interesting. I don’t know whether that would be the case. I was a professor of law, particularly medical, I was looking at the pathological bits of society in a sense, and some negative aspects of society, so they may be a bit of a reaction against that, but I think it’s probably more determined by one’s disposition in life.
“I think that I tend to find a great pleasure in the positive. I think that the difficulties of life and the sadnesses of life should be represented in literature and in art because they’re part of being human, but I think we need to bear in mind that there is another side, which is a positive side. I think there’s a danger that we accustom ourselves to the dysfunctional and the violent and the confrontational as being the default position and assume that unless any form of entertainment has this edge of conflict and confrontation it’s somehow irrelevant or unworthy. Which is a remarkable attitude to take because I think life can also be celebrated and one can contemplate the noble and the romantic, which is part of life and most people want that in their lives. They don’t want a diet just of that. If you’re going to be a social realist you must realise that also involves the portrayal of the positive features of life.”
Which most people experience most of the time.
“Most people’s lives are fairly straightforward. they don’t encounter wallow in dysfunction. there’s a lot of that around, to be sure, but it’s not the sole picture.”
I suppose people do try to look on the brighter side even when something bad happens.
“I think humanity has to, because if we lose that ability then I think we become immensely discouraged and what would we do, would we see any point in continuing. I think Albert Camus’ question about suicide is absolutely bang-on. That’s the real question, why do we carry on? We either carry on through blind habit and instinct, which are very powerful reasons to carry on, or we carry on because we have some conception of something that can be achieved by carrying on.
“In other words we have some conception of good or joy, fruition, fulfilment and any of these things will work. One gets into elaborate philosophical debates about that quite quickly because it seem to me the choice is between nihilism, saying nothing matters and there’s no point. or saying yes there are things that matter and there is a point and there’s a reason for us to continue. Even if we construct that reason, even if we know in our heart of hearts that reason may just be whistling in the dark, it may still work.
“People may for example, decide that life is meaningless but they’re going to make themselves miserable if the acknowledge its meaninglessness and therefore they’re looking for meaning that they create. So they immerse themselves in meaning in a limited context. They get that from art, or creating things or collecting things.”
In creating something like 44 Scotland Street would that be creating your meaning?
“I wouldn’t put it that highly because 44 Scotland Street is to provide entertainment. I suppose my work taken in the round I would say yes, I suppose that gives some meaning and structure to my life. Not that I sit there and think about this much. I don’t try to analyse too deeply, but I think I wouldn’t do it if I thought it wasn’t worth doing. I think that what I’m doing there is that it has so happened that I have been fortunate enough, because people have been kind enough to read my books, I’m in a position where I can share my vision of what the world is and how me might react to the world or how we might just get pleasure from contemplating the world. and that is what I do. If I felt that I wasn’t doing anything like that I’m not sure that I’d bother.”
His current passion, which will be revealed to the world very soon (although Writer Pictures has had an exclusive peek) is Scotland’s Tapestry, more than 120 metres of embroidery telling the story of the nation. It’s a subject of which he’s clearly very proud.
What was the driving force behind the Tapestry of Scotland, the idea behind that?
“I suppose it was fairly simple in the first instance. I saw the Prestonpans Tapestry which told the story of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s travel through Scotland up to the Battle of Prestonpans. I noticed it was such a lovely object artistically and aesthetically. The artist Andrew Crummy had such a marvellous vision and a wonderful ability to convey the story graphically that I thought that it would be interesting to do the whole history of Scotland and in particular I noticed the expressions on the faces of the people who were looking at the tapestry and they joy that they clearly had. It was wonderful, people were just carried away by it.
“It seemed to me this would be a wonderful thing to have, a tapestry which did the whole history of Scotland not just this little slice of Jacobite history, but the whole shooting-match, so I approached Alastair Moffat and he was very keen to get involved. And I approached various other people, so we set it up and I asked Andrew whether he was prepared to illustrate it and he was.
“It’s being stitched by many hundreds of people, over 1000 volunteers throughout Scotland, and it’s a project that has brought so much pleasure to people ad it’s such a beautiful object. I suppose it’s the biggest single object which embodies Scotland’s history, there’s nothing like it. We haven’t got any one item that says, ‘this is your story, here it is,’ and it does so in such a successful way.”
Given that this massive work is a visual representation of history, and that illustrations by Iain McIntosh have become so linked with his work, I wondered if there was a particular reason he was drawn to illustration.
You do seem to use visual art quite a lot, mainly Iain Mcintosh’s illustrations, a particularly in the new children’s book.
“Isn’t it lovely?”
Every single page has something nice. I remember when I was a kid, books were always better with pictures. Is that something you consciously thought? “I’m going to have a picture on every page.”
“That’s Ian’s wonderful illustrative genius, he’s a magnificent illustrator and he just transforms these things. With these books I wanted to have illustrations because these are children’s books and therefore one would need to have illustrations and Ian get so much humour in.”
The hippo with the massive roar is particularly good.
“It’s wonderful. I’m very interested in art and I think that if you look at my novels art crops up a lot. In Scotland Street, Angus Lordie is an artists so we get a bit of that, but also in the Isabel Dalhousie series we get observations on art. I get great pleasure from art and I’m fascinated by the history of art in an amateurish way. I look each day at such pictures as I possess and get wonderful pleasure from them.”
With time running short, I ask a question my mum – a huge fan – told me I had to ask him.
You’re obviously very fond of your characters, with some appearing much more than others. Are there any you get sick of having to write or do you just give up on them?
“I don’t really give up on them. Some might take a bit of a back seat. I’ve occasionally written characters out altogether, once with great regret: Lard O’Connor, the Glasgow gangster. I’m sorry that he had a heart attack because he was very useful. I think we’ll have to bring his son, Wee Lard in at some stage.“
He laughs. “And Ramsay Dumbarton, who was this tremendously dull solicitor who died while Angus Lordie was painting his portrait who went on and on and on about local history and local memories. I’m sorry that Ramsay’s gone.”
And with that, he’s off to tell The Guardian his favourite word and get ready for his main event. For a man with so many demands on his time, he is very generous with it and unfailingly polite and helpful. Thank you, Sandy.