Into Africa

 

INTERVIEW:In the character of Precious Ramotswe and her No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, writer Alexander McCall Smith reveals his deep affection for Botswana

THIS WAS NEVER going to be an unbiased interview. For one thing, there was Botswana – that marvellous airy country so beloved of the traditionally built Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency – for another thing, there was her creator, Alexander McCall Smith.

We meet on a bitterly cold afternoon in Dublin’s Merrion Hotel, described on its website as “understated elegance” – a phrase that might be applied to McCall Smith himself. Genial, expansive and so utterly relaxed that it looks at one point he is about to put his feet up and go into a reclining position among the cushions on the Merrion’s luxurious sofa. And why not? He’s resting, having just flown in from Edinburgh to talk about The Double Comfort Safari Club, the most recent in his Precious Ramotswe series.

McCall Smith (“Call me Sandy”) spent his first 18 years in Bulawayo – his father was a state prosecutor in the old Rhodesia days – before coming to Edinburgh University to qualify in criminal law, moving through personal responsibility and law and finally becoming Professor of Medical Law in bio-ethics.

He spent a year teaching at Queen’s University Belfast and was delighted to receive an honorary degree there last year: “It was marvellous to see Belfast in such good circumstances,” he says. “I’d been there in 1973 – a bad year.”

But this is all a long way from Sandy McCall Smith, writer, and if you look at one of his websites – I counted three – you’ll see he publishes one book a year.

“Four,” he corrects me. This is surely prodigious? “It’s certainly not normal,” he says. But neither is getting up at four in the morning to write for a few hours – and then going back to bed again for a nap. Nor is it normal to play one of those horns that are three feet long when straightened out? Anyway, he founded The Really Terrible Orchestra which played in New York Town Hall last year. “They seemed to love us and we played really badly,” he adds proudly. (Catch them on YouTube, you won’t be disappointed.)

Another thing they like about him in the US is the phrase he uses to describe Precious’s regal build. “Traditionally-built.” I ask, “Is it a Botswana phrase?”

“No, no. I thought it up myself. Women in the US love it and now lots of people use it.”

Another phrase which does come from Botswana is late, as in dead. “He became late,” Precious will say sadly of a deceased relative or friend.

Botswana clearly has a special place in McCall Smith’s heart and no wonder. He first went there in 1980 to co-found the University of Botswana and now goes there every year.

Here, we stray into constitutional law. He knows South Africa’s famed constitutional lawyer, Albie Sachs, and last year dined with our own – and South Africa’s – Kader Asmal. Edinburgh University’s school of law has made him professor emeritus. This is interesting, as I once asked my cousin – who is professor emeritus at Queen’s – what were the perks, only to be told, free car parking! And at Edinburgh? McCall Smith smiles, “A library card”.

His critics have pointed out that he puts too-positive a spin on Botswana. What – no corruption, no sickness, none of the usual unpleasant things of everyday life?

“Well, I don’t bring politics into my books. That would be an intrusion too far. Europeans should observe the usual courtesies when in Africa. Look at Tony Blair telling Mugabe what to do. Criticising people doesn’t achieve anything. It pushes them into a corner.”

So if not Tony Blair, what about his fellow countryman, Gordon Brown. Will he be voting for him? At which query the lawyer steps smartly up to the mic: “That’s not something I would reveal, certainly not to a newspaper.” In fact, he’s aghast that he’s actually said something that might appear ungentlemanly. “No, no. I don’t want to criticise Mr Blair,” and it’s Precious speaking, anxious always to see the good side in people, to cherish their positive characteristics.

Perhaps that’s why his books are so popular, full of people who are, on the whole, decent, law-abiding and ready to help each other.

He wonders if this is something to do with the fact that the traditional structures have survived in Botswana. “They are a cautious people,” he explains.

Precious isn’t his only heroine. There’s Isabel Dalhousie, philosopher and amateur sleuth, star of The Sunday Philosophy Clubseries.

Momentarily, we digress to his favourite poet, W H Auden. When I quote a few lines, he identifies the poem and where it was written. He knows Edward Mendelson, Auden’s literary executor, and even had Isabel attend a real lecture which Mendelson gave – which he put in one of his books.

“You mean Isabel actually went to the lecture?” I ask.

“Well, I went,” he says gently, too polite to point out that I have confused fact with fiction.

On the street outside, I wonder if I have brought some Sandy McCall Smith warmth with me or has the temperature really risen? What is sure is the glorious moon hanging in the evening sky – a calm, benign, Botswana sort of moon. A Precious Ramotswe moon.

The Double Comfort Safari Clubis published by Little, Brown (£12.99). Cover illustration by Iain McIntosh

PHOTOGRAPH CYRIL BYRNE