Readers of The Scotsman will know all about Bertie McCullough. Although
Alexander McCall Smith’s daily novel in this newspaper is largely an ensemble piece,
there’s no doubt about its real star. In many ways Bertie is a remarkably complex
character: an Italian speaker of some fluency, a saxophonist of at least busker
standard, he is no stranger to the psychiatrist’s chair. He also has one other important,
simplifying, characteristic. He’s only six.
The Importance Of Being Seven
By Alexander McCall Smith
Polygon, 311pp, 16.99
Six, not seven. At seven, as McCall Smith notes in his introduction, Bertie might
stand a chance of wising up to the wiles of the world. He might grow petulant at the
way in which his frightful mother Irene dominates his life so completely. He might
even - although he’s such a well-mannered boy that it’s hard to imagine - throw a
strop, assert his own independence, and refuse to co-operate with her plan to bring
him up to university admission standard in most subjects.
Such an independent streak might start to develop in a boy’s mind from seven up. But
at six it doesn’t, which is why McCall Smith seems intent on keeping him at that age
of innocence, forever yearning to understand the world as completely as seven-year-
olds seem to do.
Cynicism, then, remains unknown to young Bertie. But in truth it’s in generally short
supply in Scotland Street, and the latest volume is no exception.
Bruce Anderson, that well-known narcissist and quantity surveyor, might seem to
have settled down and be actually looking forward to marriage, but regular readers
who have followed his career through the previous five books will know all about the
impossibility of leopards changing their spots.
And Kirsty, that uppity young girl Matthew has taken on as an assistant at his
art gallery, might be cynically planning to cause trouble for her naive boss. But
deliberate nastiness is rare in Scotland Street: even Irene, taking Bertie to yet another
psychiatrist, thinks that she is acting in his best interests.
Generally, though, life in Scotland Street is a more pleasant, leisurely business than
it is for most of the rest of us. There’ll be bores (even among students) and even, in
Irene’s case, confirmation of the extramarital affair that led to the arrival of Bertie’s
infant brother Ulysses.
Genuine shocks, however, have rarity value - and even when they happen, they tend
to herald good news rather than bad. Elspeth’s discovery that she is pregnant with
triplets (and all boys too!), Irene’s sudden disappearance (accidentally locked into a
lorry carrying aid to Romania) and even Antonia’s illness while on holiday in Italy all
fall into this category.
That last example might seem cruel - but when Antonia is overcome by Stendhal
Syndrome while on holiday in Tuscany, the way is clear for her two accompanying
friends, Domenica and Angus Lordie, to fall in love with each other.
The fictional world McCall Smith conjures up in these daily dispatches may move
slowly, its plot shimmering like a mirage. But to make up for it, there’s plenty of
time for idle thoughts, occasional shafts of wit and gentle dissections of absurdity -
sometimes all at the same time, as when Irene is shown wondering, for a whole page,
whether married women should start calling their maiden name their authentic name
and their married name their secondary one.
And isn’t this, after all, the way most of our lives are lived - not as part of a plot but as
a succession of thoughts and whims that would look absurd if held up to the light?
It’s this slice of life that Scotland Street serves up so perfectly. Its characters’ sins
aren’t venal, but enough to make us smile. We recognise them so well - Irene’s self-
righteousness, Lizzie’s naivety about Bruce, Domenica’s glee in exposing Antonia’s
And we recognise their virtues as well - Big Lou’s common sense, Elspeth’s
determination, Angus’s perseverence in his craft and Matthew’s kindness. Despite
those last two examples, in moral terms at least, women are so clearly the stronger sex
in this - as indeed all - of McCall Smith’s fiction.
Perhaps one day we might be able to add Bertie to the list. One day, if it ever comes,
when he is finally seven and can make up his own mind about life.