Alexander McCall Smith: The Revolving Door of Life


Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street Series started life as a serial in 2004 in The Scotsman newspaper. There are ten books in this series, and they are an ongoing project for which McCall Smith, like Dickens before him, writes one thousand words a day. In 2005 Polygon Books began to publish these stories in book form. The Revolving Door of Life is the latest book from this series.

Part of the charm of these stories is that the lives of the characters grow and develop from book to book. We come to know them and their strengths and weakness. Angus Lordie and his dog with the gold tooth, Cyril, Domenica MacDonald anthropologist and the friend whom he eventually marries, Antonia Collie who becomes a nun, Matthew, gallery owner and in this book married to Elspeth, and father of triplets, Big Lou and her coffee bar, in this book with her niece Hettie who wants to correct the Scottish diet, Pat, Matthew’s former girl-friend and now gallery assistant, and an occasional glimpse into the proceedings of the Scottish Nudist Association (or should that be the Association of Scottish Nudists?)

My favourite character however is Bertie Pollock, the little boy with the tigress mother, who had him playing the saxophone when he was five, and in spite of his protests, practising yoga and seeing a psychoanalyst.
Bertie was five when this series commenced in the Scotsman in 2004. Laboriously, over the last twelve years he has reached the age of seven. As he muses,

Bertie was reflecting on the fact that he was no longer six; he had been that age for so many years, it seemed, and he had begun to despair of ever getting any older…yet whatever clock determined the passage of time for him seemed to be very badly calibrated.

We feel so much sympathy for Bertie because he has the mother from hell. Controlling, politically correct to an absurd degree, she dominates the lives of Bertie and his hapless father Stuart. She insists that Bertie plays Cowboys and Native Americans with different rules: the Cowboys are to work with the Native Americans to establish community centres. She sends Bertie to a Steiner school with hostile classmates, nasty Olive, and thuggish Tofu, who give Bertie a hard time because his mother Irene makes him wear pink overalls to school.

But this book begins with his mother away. A little spot of bother in Saudi, where she somehow gets co-opted into a harem and is not able to extricate herself for six weeks.

Stuart’s mother Nicola, whom Irene has previously antagonised, comes from Portugal to help Stuart care for Bertie and his new baby brother Ulysses (who looks worryingly like Bertie’s old psychotherapist). With Nicola in charge, Bertie has the happiest six weeks of his young life. Nicola is appalled when she discovers Bertie is not allowed to eat pizza, he doesn’t have any jeans, or even worse, a kilt. For these books are very Scottish. It is probably the happiest day of Bertie’s life when he gets his kilt.

All the greater is his sadness when his mother turns up again, as cross as ever, greeted by Ulysses with a particularly large spout of vomit. Irene gives Nicola her marching orders, but Nicola finds a way to stay on, she can’t bear to abandon Bertie, of whom she is deeply fond.
She hears him crying in his bed and tells him one of her Fersie Mc Pherson the Scottish person stories which she has specially created for him. It helps a bit.

Each cluster of characters has a little problem of ethics to solve; Matthew has found some valuable paintings in a house he has just bought, Pat wants to use her old boyfriend the irresistible Bruce to rescue her father from the clutches of a gold digger, the Nudists devise a cunning plan involving Aberdeen to wrest back control of their Association.

Most things are resolved in a kind and ethical way, but enough ends are left dangling to keep us engaged and ready for the next book. A McCall Smith book always has discussions of ethical issues, Scottish identity, painting, and the general inconsequential musing conversations we all have; why don’t people have dinner parties these days, has conversation changed and declined in the 2000’s, is it possible to distinguish between male novelists and female just by writing style and many other things you’ve never thought of.
And if Scotland Street is not to your taste Alexander McCall Smith has written over one hundred books in various genres. His best sellers are the stories of his detective Mma Precious Ramtotswe, the proprietor of the No1 Ladies Detective Ladies Agency in Gaborone, the capital of Botswana. These books have sold twenty-five million copies and have been made into a TV series starring the lovely Jill Scott. They are kind-hearted books, optimistic, and with a strong sense of justice. Like all McCall Smiths books they ponder moral dilemmas, and stress the importance of social cohesion, and kindness. Sometimes the situations facing Mma Precious are gritty and but one always has confidence she will prevail.

But that’s not even half of McCall Smith’s work. He studied at the University of Botswana (he was born in Bulawayo.) and returned there to teach medical ethics at his old university and is Emeritus Professor of Medical law at the University of Edinburgh. He now lives in Scotland and returns to Botswana every year, to keep his stories alive and to gather new material. He writes many other different series, putting out five books a year. He can write one thousand words an hour and what’s more keep it up day after day.

If you are feeling a bit glum and would like to spend and hour or two in the company of characters who think deeply about the nature of life and society but who are also fallible and ridiculous McCall Smith is your man. I defy you not to feel cheered after reading one of his books.

12 thoughts on “Alexander McCall Smith: The Revolving Door of Life

  1. I love the 44 Scotland Street Series! I like it better than the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency. You’re right to point out how each book tackles some kind of ethical or philosophical dilemma, and how it does this in a way that is gentle and unforced. i also really like The Sunday Philosophy Club books. The underlying warmth and kindness remind me of Gert Loveday. One part of McCall Smith’s CV you didn’t mention is his membership of Edinburgh’s ‘Really Terrible Orchestra’, which people regularly pay good money to hear!

    1. How wonderful Dorothy. I would love to hear them.He is in Australia at present and there was an interview on Lateline. He is a man who exudes warmth and humour. Dare I say a Good Person?

  2. Do you know, I had never even considered reading McCall Smith until this post appeared in my reader. Not sure why, possibly because I’d formed the impression that his books were a little light and samey. I shall keep him in mind now – we all need good pick-me-up reads every now and again.

  3. Mc Call Smith is an astonishing man and writer. He is world renowned for his work on medical ethics and his wise judgments in this area.
    He writes with a light touch and a great understanding of people and their big and little issues in life. To write in so many voices shows not only the experiences that have formed and informed him but his desire for us all to have the ‘do no harm’ ethic.
    I loved Isobel Dalhousie and Corduroy Mansions.

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