Book Review by Patricia Cleveland-Peck
There are some books which you just wish would never end – and the 44 Scotland Street series, of which The Revolving Door of Life is the tenth volume, is a good example. Fortunately Alexander McCall Smith is an incredibly prolific writer and so does manage to provide his addicted fans with a new fix at regular intervals.
In the books, which began as a daily serial in The Scotsman newspaper, we meet the characters who live in or around the eponymous tenement stair, 44 Scotland Street in Edinburgh’s New Town. These include Angus Lordie, the portrait painter and his beloved dog Cyril, both now adjusted to married life with Domenica, the anthropologist who was actually born at number 44; Matthew married to Elspeth who used to teach the delightful 7-year old Bertie Pollock; Pat who works for Matthew at his art gallery in Dundas Street; the narcissistic Bruce who knows he is irresistible to women; the charming (but fake) Duke of Johannesburg and Big Lou who runs the coffee shop in which they often meet.
The stories in the main deal with the everyday problems and dilemmas of their lives; they converse about such things as the decline of the dinner party, they agonise about the problems of ownership and the possibility of wicked stepmothers but now and then a slightly surreal element is introduced. In this book the nudists of Moray Place reappear and Irene, Bertie’s ghastly mother returns from being detained in a harem somewhere in the Gulf, while in volume three, Love Over Scotland, Domenica was captured by pirates in the Malacca Straits.
As well as the vividly drawn fictional characters Alexander McCall Smith often includes real Edinburgh residents. Ian Rankin has appeared, as have Roddy Martine, Sir Ian Rifkind and Guy Peploe, grandson of the famous Scottish Colourist. A deep love of place, mainly Edinburgh, runs through the series and this is in no way diluted by a similar intermingling of real and fictional locations. The character Matthew’s fictional Something Special Gallery for example, would be found more of less opposite Guy’s Peploe’s real Scottish Gallery. Big Lou’s fictional Coffee and Conversation Bar is situated in the real Dundas Street and The Cumberland Bar and The Canny Man Pub both of which crop up in this book and other volumes, are two very real Edinburgh watering holes. In this book too, Matthew and The Duke of Johannesburg hide in Mary King’s Close, a spooky underground network of abandoned shops and streets which sounds exactly like something a writer would imagine – but is in fact a very real ‘attraction’ in Edinburgh’s Old Town.
The fun of spotting these locations was something I experienced a while back when I had the pleasure of walking round Edinburgh with Alexander McCall Smith. We began with Scotland Street which does exist although number 44 does not – nevertheless the imagined site was pointed out to me. Alexander McCall Smith proved to be the most charming and courteous guide and after visiting many other places, real or imagined mentioned in the books, he insisted on taking me to lunch at Valvona and Crolla, the Italian deli which his characters often visit. I found him to be that rare thing, a thoroughly nice person who is both kind and wise. Reading his books is in fact, the next best thing to being in his company for these simple-sounding tales contain reflections on some of his deeper preoccupations. Art, the poetry of W.H Auden, morality, architecture and love of Scotland are amongst the things which mean a lot to him and he presents them in these stories with such a light touch that they are not only accessible to all but add a dimension to which lifts the stories from social comedies almost to minor works of philosophy.
For 44 Scotland Street fans this book is yet another triumph while those not yet having experienced the sagas have the additional pleasure of the first nine volumes.
The Revolving Door of Life by Alexander McCall Smith
Published by Polygon ISBN 978 1846973284
£16.99 hardback Also available as an eBook