Book review: Bertie’s Guide To Life And Mothers by Alexander McCall Smith

IT DOESN’T take much for Alexander McCall Smith to set his fictive world of 44 Scotland Street spinning again. A quick introduction to the characters is all he needs.

Alexander McCall Smith. Picture: TSPL
Alexander McCall Smith. Picture: TSPL
Alexander McCall Smith. Picture: TSPL

Bertie’s Guide To Life And Mothers

by Alexander McCall Smith

Polygon, £16.99

Here’s Irene Pollock. He doesn’t need to tell us that she is the hothousing mother par excellence: those of us who delight in his gentle comedy of New Town manners know that already. So this time he merely adds that she first realised her son Bertie’s love of the theatre by the way he reacted positively to the rapid changes of light on the set of the Contemporary Theatre of Krakow’s Festival production to which she took him when he was four months old.

Here’s her husband Stuart, a wimpish civil servant statistician, regretting that he used figures from The Scotsman’s Sudoku puzzle as an estimate of future North Sea oil production – even though this optimistic assessment has won him promotion. And here’s Bertie himself – or “the Bertie Project” as his mother thinks of him when wondering how to implement the teachings of Melanie Klein – and this time he’s on the verge of something that has never happened in all of the seven preceding volumes: his seventh birthday.

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As Clive James has observed, “a sense of humour is common sense, dancing”. Hothousing parents clearly do exist, just as do those oil production guesstimates which may indeed determine the nation’s future. The trick is to take such boring realities and have fun with them. Some of the fun is blatantly ridiculous – the narcissist Bruce having a waxing accident, Irene’s entire adventures in Dubai, and the painter Angus Lordie getting into trouble for allowing his gold-toothed dog Cyril to become drunk – although McCall Smith has such a light touch that the ridiculousness of the situation never gets in the way of the fun.

But the reason that these books have become bestsellers is that readers can recognise they are underpinned by a guiding moral intelligence, that behind the dance there is an occasionally quite profound common sense.

In some chapters, sense and humour fuse absolutely. Only the terminally humourless could fail to enjoy Irene’s deconstruction of Winnie the Pooh in preparation for a talk to her book club (which goes down so well that she immediately starts work on one on RLS provisionally entitled “Stevenson: the bourgeois transparency of an opaque writer”). The Glasgow-led putsch at the AGM of the Association of Scottish Nudists at which voting rights weighted towards the Edinburgh association are overturned is similarly delightful.

Add all that to the lack of offence in McCall Smith’s humour, his recherché knowledge and his fundamental belief, evident throughout, in kindness, respect and love and you realise that this is a very special commonsensical dance.

• Alexander McCall Smith is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 10, 14 and 16 August