In Edinburgh with Alexander McCall Smith
I've been travelling with a book by Alexander McCall Smith, author of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series. McCall Smith is following an inquisitive moral philosopher, Isabel Dalhousie, as she explores the mystery of a man who is given a heart transplant and finds himself haunted by a memory that does not belong to him. Infuriating and endearing, Isabel has her own affair of the heart, which remains untouched by the events she uncovers in Friends, Lovers, Chocolate - or does it?
A small vessel pointed out to sea
Along the way to his story's tender and unexpected conclusion, McCall Smith weaves in scenes from Edinburgh, and I thought you might like to read a few of these. The book begins with Ian, who is dying -
He was aware of the seagulls which had drifted in from the shore and were swooping down onto the cobblestones, picking up fragments dropped by somebody who had been careless with a fish. Their mews were the loudest sound in the street at that moment, as there was little traffic, and the city was unusually quiet. It was October, it was mid-morning, and there were few people about. A boy on the other side of the road, scruffy and tousle-haired, was leading a dog along with a makeshift leash - a length of string. . .
[He] reached the St. Mary's Street crossroads. On the corner on his right was a pub, the World's End, a place of resort for fiddlers and singers; on his left, Jeffrey Street curved round and dipped under the great arch of the North Bridge. Through the gap in the buildings, he could see the flags on top of the Balmoral Hotel: the white-on-blue cross of the Saltire, the Scottish flag, the familiar diagonal stripes of the Union Jack. There was a stiff breeze from the north, from Fife, which made the flags stand out from their poles with pride, like the flags on the prow of a ship ploughing into the wind. And that, he thought, was what Scotland was like, a small vessel pointed out to sea, a small vessel buffeted by the wind.
Isabel's niece is a young woman called Cat. When she visits Isabel -
. . .they ate a light supper in the garden room, enjoying the last of the evening sun. it was June - close to the solstice - and it never became truly dark in Edinburgh, even at midnight. The summer had been slow to come, but had now arrived and the days were long and warm.
But the warm days disappear behind sheets of fast-moving cloud, and then it is Edinburgh interiors that McCall conjures -
The door was opened. Inside the club, Isabel made her way upstairs to the large L-shaped sitting room - the smoking room - where members congregated. It was a room filled with light, with two large ceiling-to-floor windows at the front, overlooking the square and its trees, and another large window at the back, looking down onto the mews behind Shandwick Place. There were two fireplaces, a grand piano, and comfortable red leather bench seats running along one wall, like the seats of an old parliament somewhere, in some forgotten corner of the Commonwealth.
A triangular oatcake
The novel begins because Isabel has 'firm views on moral proximity and the obligations it created. . .If one encounters the need of another, because of who one happens to be, or where one happens to find oneself, and one is in a position to help, then one should do so. It was as simple as that'.
That simple view has inspired many great men and women, and has helped to create communities where we want to live. There are other small caresses that make us love a place. Take a triangular oakcake, with one side a bit rounded.
I didn't know that a triangle is the traditional shape of an oatcake, and it isn't easy to find, even in Edinburgh, as a Scotsman in the novel ruefully remarks -
'You may think it's ridiculous. But it's just that there are so few things in this world which are authentic. Local. Little things - like the shape of oatcakes - are very important. It's nice to have these familiar things about one. There are so many people who want to make things the same. They want to take our Scottish things away from us.'
The poignancy of his words struck Cat.
In the howff
On a further exploration, Isabel passes the Old College of the university
Above the dome, a gleaming statue of a naked youth, torch in hand, caught the late afternoon sun, gold against the high background of cloud. Isabel tended to look up when she walked round Edinburgh, because that was where the forgotten delights were - the carved stone thistles, the Scottish gargoyles straddling roof gables, the all but obliterated signs of the nineteenth century: PENS, INKS LOANS - a palimpsest of the life and commerce of the town. . .Isabel continued along the Cowgate, a street which ran under South Bridge and George IV Bridge - a sunken level of the old part of the city. On either side high stone buildings, darkened by ancient smoke, riddled with passages and closes, climbed up to the light above.
She realizes she is being followed, and increases her pace.
He was nearer now, and she saw that he was looking at her. She turned her head away; she was on Sandy Bell's corner, the signs - WHISKIES, ALES, AND MUSIC NIGHTLY - immediately beside her. She hesitated for a moment, and then turned in, pushing open the swing door and entering the wood-panelled howff with its long, polished-mahogany bar and its array of whisky bottles on shelves. To her relief, she saw that the room was quite full, even now, just after five o'clock; later it would be packed, exuberant with music, filled with the sound of fiddles, whistles, singing. She approached the bar, pleased to find herself beside a woman. . .The woman beside her touched her glass, which was almost empty. Isabel was pleased to respond.
'May I?' she asked, gesturing towards the barman.
The woman's face lit up. 'Thank you, hen.' Isabel liked the characteristically Scottish term of affection. Hen.
And there, we'll leave her, as the man pursuing her enters.