Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Importance of Being Seven - Alexander McCall Smith

What a joy it is to visit 44 Scotland Street again. The Importance of Being Seven is the sixth collection of episodes from the daily novel that Alexander McCall Smith writes for The Scotsman newspaper. The short chapters are about 3pp long & it can be disconcerting when you’ve been following a story for several episodes & suddenly the scene changes. Still, it’s comforting to know that you’ll meet the characters again a few pages on & resolve that cliffhanger ending that McCall Smith is so good at. I’ve always wondered how the 19th century readers of Dickens coped with the weekly or monthly wait for the next instalment of Little Dorrit or Bleak House. I’m an impatient reader, rushing to read just one more chapter to find out what happens so I can’t think of anything worse than having to wait a month for the next instalment. A day is probably as long as I could bear to wait but having the whole year’s instalments in one volume means I can read the lot in a couple of days & sigh with satisfaction at the end.

All the characters from the previous books are here & it only takes a couple of pages to remember their stories. There’s newly married Matthew, the art gallery owner who famously wore a distressed oatmeal jumper & crushed strawberry trousers. Luckily, they’re nowhere to be seen in this book. His kind, competent wife, former teacher, Elspeth Harmony, has probably consigned them to the back of the wardrobe. How long will it be, though, before Matthew’s over-protective solicitousness drives her crazy? Especially as she’s now pregnant & they’re looking for a bigger flat. Elspeth won my heart in a previous book when she taught at the Steiner School & pinched the ear of a particularly awful little girl. Of course, she had to resign but I was cheering her on.

Anthropologist Domenica Macdonald continues her friendly feud with her neighbour Antonia Collie as they plan a trip to an Italian villa. When Antonia invites artist Angus Lordie & his dog Cyril (he of the golden tooth) along as well, Domenica is immediately suspicious of her motives. Does Antonia have designs on Angus? Bruce, the narcissistic surveyor, has a new fiancée, Lizzie, but is he just after her money? Lizzie’s friend, Diane, lays a trap to discover Bruce’s true feelings. One of the funniest chapters in the book involves Bruce as the surveyor of Matthew & Elspeth’s expensive new flat. Matthew had met Bruce before as they’re both former boyfriends of Pat Macgregor, & they disliked each other on sight. Bruce's snide comments about the price Matthew paid & the unstable structure of the house have Matthew in emotional meltdown until Elspeth takes control & creates order out of chaos.

In the Introduction to this volume, McCall Smith says that he’s amazed by the many people he meets who are concerned about the characters of Scotland Street, but especially about Bertie Pollock, the put-upon six year old son of the dreadful Irene, the worst mother in modern fiction. Bertie is at the heart of this book & of the whole series. The other characters are adults & however much we feel for Big Lou or Elspeth or Pat, they can look after themselves. Bertie is at the mercy of a mother who doesn’t understand him. She’s devoted to the theories of Freud, Jung & Melanie Klein but her worst sin is that she never listens to Bertie. She is the classic over-achiever who refuses to let Bertie be a child. She wants him to grow up too soon & in her own image. Bertie goes to a Steiner School & the other children are horrible. Olive is the bossy, vindictive little girl whose ear was pinched; Tofu is a liar; Hiawatha has smelly socks. Bertie’s life is filled with saxophone lessons, Italian conversazione with his mother & visits to his psychotherapist. His one spot of joy is his weekly Scout meeting although the other children are also members of the pack so he can’t escape them entirely. Bertie’s little brother, Ulysses, has an unfortunate resemblance to his previous psycho-analyst, Dr Fairbairn, & a habit of throwing up whenever he looks at his mother. Bertie’s father, Stuart, is pretty ineffectual, as much a victim of Irene as Bertie is. The high spot of their lives is a fishing trip they take that leads to them meeting a young boy who represents everything Bertie wants for his own his life. Andy plays rugby, has a collection of penknives & has never heard of yoga or psychotherapy. There’s definitely some hope at the end of the book that Bertie & his father might make a stand against Irene - & not just by moving to Glasgow when they’re older, a dream they both share.

Scotland Street is an absorbing place to visit. I love the fact that McCall Smith has become famous for writing such gentle, moral tales. All his books have similar themes of right & wrong. His good characters are striving to do the right thing & his bad characters get their comeuppance sooner or later. The books are full of humour too. McCall Smith pokes fun at his pretentious characters with such enthusiasm. I think it’s heartening to think that this gentle humour is what readers want. Not everyone wants to read misery memoirs or violent thrillers. Bertie is longing for his seventh birthday, thinking his life will change, that people will respect him more when he reaches this great milestone. He doesn’t get there in this book, but that only gives us something to look forward to in the next.

I’m continuing the Scottish theme in my reading with The Bride of Lammermoor by Sir Walter Scott. I’m reading this with my 19th century bookgroup. I’ve also just started reading Fiona Watson’s new book about the real Macbeth, stripping away the myths to reveal a more complex picture of Dark Age Scotland. I’m looking forward to both of them.


  1. Dear Lyn,
    Thanks for a great review - it puts into words all the delights of AMS's Scotland St so well. Bertie and Stuart dreaming of Glasgow - sheer genius!

    Did you follow Corduroy Mansions second volume online with it's daily installments? That was quite fun and rather Dickensian in that there was no possible way to read ahead and we were left to 'dangle' for 24hrs...

    I do so enjoy this series and the No.1 Ladies series. Isabel of the Sunday Philosophy Club doesn't do it for me at all, however I still compulsively read every new book in each series as I love the gentle domesticity that AMS depicts. I think the Isabel series lacks the humour and occasional absurdity of the other series.

    I have put a hold on a library copy of The Importance of Being Seven...

    Thanks for a great blog. I usually only lurk, small children keep me busy...

    Regards, Merenia (Adelaide)

  2. Merenia, thanks for commenting (and lurking). I did read Corduroy Mansions online. I think I only survived the suspense because I only had to wait a day for the next instalment. I enjoyed both books but not as much as Scotland St. Edinburgh is the attraction for me, I think, which is why I also love the Isabel Dalhousie series but have never been able to get on with Mma Ramotswe. Isabel does take herself seriously, probably the philosophical slant of the stories, but I love the picture of Edinburgh. Although I'm not a dog person (Abby wouldn't approve) I loved Freddie De La Haye in the CM books & I love Cyril as well. AMS gives his dogs such personality. I'm glad you enjoy the blog, I'm having a lot of fun writing it & hearing from anyone who drops by.

  3. This sounds wonderful! I enjoyed The No. 1 Ladies (especially on audio - the reader is outstanding), but have not tried his other series. Scotland sounds very appealing...

  4. I've been reading this one very slowly: only allowing myself a couple of chapters a day, rather like some people will only allow themselves one or two chocolates from the box. I've always had good self-control when it comes to confectionary, but it would have been incredibly easy to gorge myself on this latest utterly charming volume of tales from Scotland Street.

    Now that I've finished I have been able to come back here and see what you made of it. You highlight most, if not all, of what I love about these books, not least the gentleness and the humour. I'm an Elspeth fan too but I'd best not say too much about that since it might not be an entirely healthy thing for a grown up to admit to becoming besotted with a fictional character!

    Like you I'm a bigger devotee of the Edinburgh books, including Isobel, than I am of the Lady Detective series. I notice there is a new Sunday Philosophy Club book out in the UK, called "The Charming Quirks of Others", a title that rather nicely encapsulates the essence of McCall Smith's fiction.

    I've never liked dogs - a legacy I am told of one jumping on my pram when I was a baby - but I still quite like reading about Cyril and Freddie.

  5. OOH ! I love some of the number one ladies detective agencies But I love the 44 Scotland street ones the best.I wasn't sure I would because I didn't like the isabel dalhousie series at all!!( Isabel's personality got on my nerves )
    There is something fresh and unique about them You can find yourself and people you know in these books. Listen to them on tape the narrator is perfect and does all the little voices in a scottish accent.I love the conversation where everyone was talking arguing about men wearing moisturizer....
    I love tofu even if he is a liar. I like that he stands up for himself. I think he cares about bertie in his own way and I think their is a lot going on in his home life. I hope they will deal with this somehow in the next book.

  6. cyril reminds me of my extremely slight,mostly black vampire cat that thinks he is a dog. We are glad he not prissy or snotty but are trying to domesticate him a little bit. He's very rough around the edges.
    I hope Angus Lordi and Domenica will get together. They compliment each other very nicely and their conversations add so much to the books

  7. If I were a dog, I would've bit Irene too! I loved your review, and am continuing to wait for this book to come out on audio. I've listened to the other books on audio, and love the format for this series.

    Thanks for a taste of 44 Scotland Street...I can almost hear Bertie practicing his sax!

  8. Thanks Jane. When you listen to the latest instalment, Bertie Plays the Blues, you might even start feeling a little empathy for Irene. I was surprised that I did as she's a very annoying character.