Edinburgh Book Festival: Eclectic evening with Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith . Picture: Edinburgh International Book Festival
Alexander McCall Smith . Picture: Edinburgh International Book Festival
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There’s no such thing as a Book Festival award for the most eclectic event, but if there were, my money would be on Tuesday’s wide-ranging chat between Jim Naughtie and Alexander McCall Smith.

For a start, there was a lot more to it than chat. WH Auden’s literary executor Edward Mendelson, over from New York, read that great love poem If I Could Tell You in such a way as to induce collective hairs to rise from collective necks. And as a musical interlude, Lachlan MacLean and Archie MacPherson ­powered impressively through The Hell-Bound Train on accordion and small pipes.

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For actual chat, we touched a few serious bases as ­McCall Smith explained why his choices in The Gathering, his anthology of Scottish ­poetry, clustered around the 20th century greats immortalised in Sandy Moffat’s Poets’ Pub. Did Scottish poetry reach such heights, he wondered, because political and cultural expression was in some way limited at the time? Yet before things could become too fervent, off we moved again. Those who don’t know their Robert Garioch from their Ruthven Todd soon found out why they should; because this was, above all, a celebration of the riches of Scottish poetry.

Then another switch, and Naughtie elicited from ­McCall Smith the fact that he’s ­started writing yet another series of books, and that this time it won’t be Scandi noir (as if!) but Scandi blanc, and that his Malmo detective protagonist Ulf Varg will have a hearing-impaired dog called Martin who has learnt to lipread but is being treated for depression.

After a quick spin through Scottish legal history and the 1687 case that first outlawed human trafficking – the basis of the Fringe opera The ­Tumbling Lassie for which­ ­McCall Smith wrote the ­libretto – we were back to belly laughs as he read from the next season of 44 Scotland Street, coming to a page near here later this year. Like I say, an eclectic event.

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Because Allan Little is such an accomplished ­interviewer, because Zindzi Mandela’s father was such a moral giant, because her own life has such an epic quality, I probably expected too much from the event, which was more like polishing a heroic statue than offering a nuanced portrait.

Her answers were clichéd, and invariably in line with the question: yes, she did have to put on a brave front at school, yes she did almost resent ­having to share her father with the nation, and so on. There is, I suspect, a more psychologically complex ­story here than could be shown in the children’s book she has written about him. Perhaps one day she’ll tell it.