Alexander McCall Smith: Someone should write a book called It’s All Right to be a Boy

Not every boy wants to be a Mermaid, says Alexander McCall Smith
Not every boy wants to be a Mermaid, says Alexander McCall Smith
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There are certain questions that people like to ask authors – and do so time after time. One of these – probably the most common question addressed to authors is: Where do you get your ideas from?

Ask an author this, and you will get, in the first place, a thin smile that is actually a wince, quickly disguised as a thin smile. It is, of course, a perfectly understandable question. Do authors make things up, or are they inspired by what they have seen or heard? Or do they perhaps get them from the books of other authors? Is there a great Jungian soup of ideas somewhere in the human consciousness from which authors may select salient plots?

Possibly, but most authors will answer tactiturnly and pass, as quickly as possible, to the next question. Some authors, if they are unduly irritated by this enquiry, will reply: “From a mail order company called Ideas Ltd”. That is a discourteous reply, and not recommended, but is sometimes tempting.

The other question that occurs very commonly is: What were your favourite books as a child? Now that is an interesting question to ask anybody, author or not. And while we’re here, perhaps you might like to think about it. Can you remember?

Since you ask, as a small boy I had two. One was The Boy’s Book of Merchant Shipping, a small, blue-bound book that featured, in infinitely boring detail, a long list of merchant ships, along with a small line drawing of each. Tonnages were listed, as were dates of construction and normal routes. That was all. It was a book without any human characters. It was, in effect, a merchant shipping trade directory, disguised as a book for hapless boys.

I loved it, and slept with it under my pillow, an attachment that brings to mind W.H. Auden’s lines: When I was a child, I/Loved a pumping engine,/Thought it every bit as/ Beautiful as you. Sometimes today I think back to it and reflect on how, if I still had it, it would be ideally placed under the pillow – a sure remedy for any bout of insomnia. One might forget the usual remedies for sleeplessness and resort, instead, to a brief dip into The Boy’s Book of Merchant Shipping. How quickly would sleep overcome one as one perused the features of coastal steamers. So, these otherwise unreadable books may have their uses. I once read five pages of the Swaziland Telephone Directory, and enjoyed the experience. There were some wonderful names listed, including somebody called Charlie P. Charlie. I would have loved to have met him – or at least to have phoned him.

My other favourite book as a boy was called Ginger’s Adventures. I loved that book every bit as much as my list of merchant ships. Unlike The Boy’s Book of Merchant Shipping this book was in verse, or doggerel, perhaps. Anyway, it rhymed, and had an unvarying metre. It tells the tale of a boy called Tommy, who had a dog called Ginger. I would have enjoyed it even if it had stopped there, but there was more. Tommy lived on a farm and wore an old-fashioned smock. Today he might have been recognised as a cross-dresser – but not in those days. His dog, Ginger, was accused – unjustly – of chasing ducks and sent off to live elsewhere. The word we now use is rehoused, but that was not available then. People were kicked out in those days, rather than rehoused.

Ginger’s new home was in London. That was bad enough, but for a dog it was pretty awful. And then, to pile Pelion upon Ossa, his new owner was a girl. Today, of course, in a modern edition of this book, Tommy would be a girl anyway and Ginger would be a bitch. But in those days, they were male. Ginger did not like living in London, where he was obliged to sleep on a satin cushion. I remember looking enviously at the picture of the satin cushion. We had no satin cushions in our house. Children’s books are often slyly aspirational.

Just when things are looking pretty bleak for Ginger, he decides to run away. Off he goes, and at last ends up back on the farm. There, all appears to be forgiven and he is allowed to stay with Tommy once again. The end.

Now it would be possible to deconstruct this story in a trice. Ph.D. theses have been written on less fertile ground than that, but one thing is clear: Ginger’s Adventures would not make it into print today. And that leads to a serious question. Nobody would suggest that today’s boys should be subjected to such sexist messages, even subliminal ones, but a legitimate question might he asked as to whether boys’ needs are being adequately addressed. There are plenty of books that quite properly portray girls fulfilling roles that in the past were dominated by boys. These books are important. There are also books that convey to boys the message that they can take on roles that have in the past been the province of girls. There is currently a book about a boy who dreams of becoming a mermaid.

But what about boys who don’t want to become mermaids? There must be some. I never wanted to be a mermaid. Never. But that was entirely to do with the problems of breathing underwater. That’s all.

Somebody should write a book called It’s All Right to be a Boy. A sensitive book, mind. But perhaps the hero could dream of becoming a lumberjack. With a tartan shirt. Or a pilot. Boys would love that – and we must keep them reading.