Book review: In a Time of Distance, by Alexander McCall Smith

The prolific Alexander McCall Smith turns his attention to poetry, in which he observes humanity with a ‘feeling eye’
Alexander McCall Smith PIC: Chris WattAlexander McCall Smith PIC: Chris Watt
Alexander McCall Smith PIC: Chris Watt

There can scarcely be a reader of The Scotsman who doesn’t know of Alexander McCall Smith and few who haven’t had their morning coffee break brightened by reading 44 Scotland Street or their evenings solaced by his Isobel Dalhousie novels. He is an unusual writer – unusual for our times anyway – because his theme is the need for kindness and sympathy. He has been remarkably prolific, so prolific that you might suppose writing has always come naturally to him, even easily. One should remember however that he served a long apprenticeship in the scribbling trade.

Now we have a collection of poems couched in the same conversational tone as his fiction. I suppose if we still made such a distinction, many, even most, might be called Light Verse. Nothing wrong with that. The same might be said of much of Burns and Byron, Auden and Larkin. Auden is, I think, his favourite poet – he has written a book about him, an admiring introduction for anyone who hasn’t read his work, also matter for reflection for those who know it already.

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I suspect that he might be happy to endorse Auden’s “Poet’s hope,” which was “to be/ like some valley cheese/ local, but prized elsewhere.” Well, indeed, much in this collection is local. There is, for instance, a sequence celebrating Edinburgh’s Seven Hills, less famous than Rome’s but, being mostly on the fringe of the city, overlooking it, more noticeable. The exception is of course the Castle Rock where “’Gardy-loo’ was rarely cried/ By those who poured burning oil/ On unwelcome visitors.”

Some poems derive from his travels, chiefly in India and Africa, and many celebrate wild animals. Tortoises, “Heavy with years, laden with caution/ And carapace” glance to the next page and the Cheetah “fast as untethered wind.”There are seven sonnets, an age-old form, dexterously handled, among them a very pleasing one in which James VI, “reflects on the loss of his only friend when young.” It should perhaps have been paired with another in which Jamie might have reflected on the savagery of his tutor, Scotland’s greatest 16th century Man of Letters, George Buchanan.

McCall Smith makes poems from occasional sights and moments: a dark Sunday kirk-going suit on a washing-line outside a croft by the sea ; a ”prosaic human settlement” in the Australian outback where a sign proclaims it to be “the home of Grumpy and Ange,” for whom, characteristically, McCall Smith creates imagined lives. Ange is of course French for angel, and his imagined woman baking cakes and tending wounded birds would be getting waves from passing angels, beings in whom, he says, “I do not believe,” except evidently as a useful, even necessary, literary device.

A section is devoted to books. One poem expresses the hope “that in our later years/ On our bedside table there will be/ More books than jars of pills.” There is a poem hailing the centenary Muriel Spark did not live to attain, Spark who, like Edinburgh, was always “ready to see the spiky side of things.” Likewise there is a good poem on Graham Greene – now, but surely only temporarily, out of fashion – a novelist who “cast his feeling eye” (excellent phrase) “recording/ The particular shipwrecks/ Of a ruined career, of small betrayals…”

McCall Smith’s own eye is a feeling one too, and I suppose most of these poems have their origin in passing encounters, in things noticed and then brooded on. He never beats the big drum or shouts his wares in the marketplace. His poetic voice is conversational, companionable, friendly. A “maker of beautiful books,” he writes, “understands that text/ should whisper to us its message,/ Like a confiding friend,/Not in the trumpet tones/ Of the strident, the polemical/ But gently, tactfully/ In the private places of exchange/ Where the loud and the angry/ Have no wish to linger.”

It is such books, books like this one, that in a time of strident and dishonest polemics readers should attend to with a feeling ear.

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ln a Time of Distance, by Alexander McCall Smith, Polygon, 147pp, £12.99

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