WHY, asks Alexander McCall Smith early on in Bertie Plays the Blues, are Scottish
buildings always grey when they could be pink, blue or ochre? Imagine, he adds, how
Moray Place could be transformed “if only they would paint it that pink that one finds
in houses in Suffolk or the warm sienna of one or two buildings in East Lothian.”
Why indeed? But then again, the seventh volume in Alexander McCall Smith’s 44
Scotland Street series puts plenty of other questions before his readers’ minds. Can
poetry be written on a computer keyboard? Really? Good poetry? Have we lost the
ability to structure the shape of a conversation? Do amoretto wrappers rise up to
the ceiling as they burn? Does the Guardian newspaper do the same? Is “Glasgow”
an appropriate first name and if so, for what kind of person? Does a woman’s
handwriting change when she enters a nunnery? Are we becoming dehumanised by
new technology? Is there such a thing as a “Burns face” that people put on when
reciting the Bard – and if there is, how would you describe it?
Alert readers will already have noticed that there’s a certain range to these questions.
Some of them – the notion of a pink painted Moray Place, for example – might
perhaps only ever strike the kind of author who is mocking Moray Place from the
leafy boulevards of Merchiston. So while the inhabitants of Moray Place might
occasionally need to be gently ribbed, this is just among equals. Or, as they would
doubtless say in Moray Place, near equals.
Like its six predecessors, this is a book which many of its Scottish readers will first
have read on weekdays in this newspaper. But a daily novel is read in a different way
to a book. In the newspaper, McCall Smith’s columns gain something from not being
what surrounds them – the relentness grimness of news, above all – and one reads
them slightly more, I think, for story.
With the book, it’s different. Cliffhangers obviously stop being cliffhangers when you
can read straight on to the next paragraph rather than having to wait a whole day. Yet
the some things emerge more clearly too.
Because it’s only in the book that you see the whole extent of McCall Smith’s gentle
comedy of manners. It has always had elements of surreal absurdity – here, the whole
notion of Bertie putting himself up for adoption by eBay – but those scenes might
come next to ones offering quite a sophisticated examination of such conundrums
as whether, if you dream about one man, you should press ahead and marry another.
That is Domenica’s dilemma here, as an old flame returns, and fiction’s conventional
wisdom almost always answers that question by saying that no you shouldn’t.
McCall Smith, however, always makes up his own mind about things. It’s a
phenomenally well-stocked mind, so it’s always worth following, not least because
in the process one inevitably ends up being better informed about a host of arcane
subjects, from the ceilings in James Pryde’s paintings to the abstruse doctrines in
Often much humour can’t stand up to a second reading. McCall Smith’s comedy is
different. Because while it is written with abundant wit (a Lothian Road bouncer, for
example, is described as having a face “untroubled by metaphysical doubt”) there are
equally large dollops of wisdom too. And if you doubt that, just read the lines he gives
to Pat MacGregor’s psychiatrist father, rapidly taking over from even Big Lou herself
as a model of sagacity. Yet the book – indeed, maybe even the series – is really about
Bertie. And for once it offers real hope that the eternal six-year-old might at last be
granted the kind of normal boyhood that both he craves (as, it seems, hundreds of
thousands of readers worldwide also do on his behalf).
For this to happen, his mother Irene has to see the errors of her hothousing ways,
to accept that she might have to turn a blind eye to her son playing British bulldogs
or indeed rugby, that there is no point subjecting him to endless psychological
examination, and that fish and chips followed by icecream is a fine diet for a growing
Normally, one can rely on Irene to be obdurate, but this time there are worrying signs
that she might relent. If she does, is the series over? How about that for a cliffhanger?