Monday, 10 June 2013

Why I love Alexander McCall Smith, reason #653

In recent weeks, I have been merrily tripping through McCall Smith's 44 Scotland Street Series. I've enjoyed McCall Smith's wit and wisdom before, mostly through the voice of Precious Ramotswe, the "traditionally built" proprietress of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, but I find his serial prose even more compelling. Those short daily chapters are such practical delights, much like 100 calorie snacks for the struggling literary addict. Unfortunately, having them collected in a bound novel - instead of doled out daily in the morning paper, as they were originally published - is rather like sitting down with a family club pack of single-serving treats: there's really nothing stopping you from working your way through the entire box other than old-fashioned self-control. Still, it's nice to be able to read a couple full chapters without discovering that the afternoon has had the nerve to turn into evening without offering to stay and fix supper.

I've been itching to share a slice of Scotland Street for nearly two-and-a-half books now, but every clever passage I've come across would lose its flavour if taken out of context, and quoting entire chapters seemed a bit much. I've finally found a paragraph that's lovely enough to quote in its own right, though knowing these thoughts belong to a particularly broad-minded, yet opinionated, anthropologist makes them all the richer. I'll try to bring them to mind next time I drive through one of Edmonton's collision-happy traffic circles; there are two on the West end alone that should really be converted into proper intersections if there's any hope of breaking up rush-hour congestion, but that would require the removal of several enormous pines from within their grassy centres. While I rather suspect those trees owe their continued longevity more to budget constraints than respect for any spiritual dimension, the latter explanation is easier on the blood pressure. "Nuisance" and "hazard" make such grumbly labels; by contrast, "sacred grove" is quite palatable.

I'll have my own words to share again soon; I've had a couple of posts kicking around in the back of my mind for a while, and, now that certain news has been made fairly public, I might actually write them, perchance to publish. We'll see. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy Edinburgh's wit as much as I do (transplanted, in this particular case, to a hotel in Malacca).

The courtyard suited her very well, as it had two frangipani trees in blossom and she could just pick up the delicate, rather sickly scent of their white flowers. She liked frangipani trees, and had planted several in her time in Kerala, all those years ago. But not everybody shared her enthusiasm; the Chinese often did not like them because they associated them with cemeteries, where they often grew. Tree associations interested Dominica. In Scotland, it was well known that rowan trees protected one against witches, just as buddleia attracts butterflies. And then there were the ancestor trees in Africa - a tree which one should not cut down, out of respect for the ancestor who might inhabit it. In India, the same rule applied to banyan trees, and she had once travelled on a highway where a banyan tree had been left growing in the middle of the road. Surprising as it was, that, she thought, demonstrated a proper sense of priorities. In her view, the car should give way to the spiritual values, although it rarely did. And, of course, there were places where the car was even accorded an almost spiritual status. Had somebody in the United States not insisted on being buried in his car? It was so absurd.
-Alexander McCall Smith, Love over Scotland

And so it goes.