Tam's Tales

- Tam Salutes a National Treasure

Alexander McCall Smith
Hardly a month goes by without Alexander McCall Smith's name entering the public domain. A new book here, a mini series for TV there, a concert here and then there are the promotional trips with book signings almost everywhere.

In my book he is just about the nearest thing we have to a national treasure. Sean Connery and Billy Connelly have their claims, but neither of these gentlemen actually live in Scotland anymore and Sean, known as Tam in his youth, has cut back on public appearances so that he can concentrate on his beloved golf.

A Publishing Phenomenon
To my mind, Alexander McCall Smith is the real deal. He is a prolific author who has attracted a global audience, still lives in Edinburgh and remains the utterly charming and delightful man that he was before the publishing bandwagon reached its current velocity. I suppose I should declare an interest in that I knew him for some years before he hit the big time and that we still occasionally meet up, generally at book related events, and have enjoyable chats about a diverse range of subjects.

It was because of this personal connection that I was lucky enough to be invited to the launch party for the publication of 'The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' which was brought out by a small Scottish publisher in 1998.

From Niche Market to Global Brand
Although 'The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency' was the first book featuring the redoubtable Mma (pronounced Ma) Ramotswe as its heroine, Sandy (as he is universally known to acquaintances) had already written about fifty books ranging from academic works (he was a law lecturer at Edinburgh University at the time) to a number of children's books such as The Perfect Hamburger and The Popcorn Pirates.

The Ramotswe books gradually gained a wider audience, nurtured by independent publishers in the U.K. and the United States. However when Random House, the publishing giant, signed a contract with him, his works were vigorously promoted and today his books are available in over forty languages. He is, quite simply, a global brand.

Currently there are twelve book in the Mma Ramotswe series and although they are not exactly my cup of tea - his primary audience is predominantly female - I really admire the economy of his writing and the huge originality and quirkiness of his plots

An Opera Like No Other
His latest project is also novel and quirky - The Okavango Macbeth. This opera features a libretto written by Sandy with music from Tom Cunningham, a Scottish composer. The plot may be loosely based on Macbeth, but this opera is played out in the Okavango Delta in Botswana and Macbeth and his compatriots are baboons. The only humans are three primatologists who have vowed to study, but never interfere with, the animals.

I enjoyed the evening very much. The idea was original and engaging, the music was accessible and the young cast of final year students from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama gave 100% of their considerable energies to produce a memorable performance.

Wit and charm

People, who know more about music than I do are been divided on the merits of the work One newspaper critic snootily compared it to "am dram" (amateur dramatics), another pointed out some similarities in the music to Lloyd Webber whereas others thought it could become a West End hit given a bigger budget. Although the opera will be available on CD in the autumn there are currently no plans for further live performances. I really hope that the work will be taken up by players who will enjoy performing it and audiences who will be beguiled by its wit and charm

The "am dram" comment might not be as insulting as it was perhaps intended. The author wanted a work that would be suitable for African singers who had wonderful musical ability but scant background in opera. The work was premiered in a converted garage in Botswana established by the author which is now called 'The No One Ladies' Opera House.' What a fabulously eccentric idea.

I started this piece referring to the subject as 'a national treasure' and that epithet was chosen with care. Sometimes the phrase can be used to refer to someone whose career is all but over, but for Sandy nothing could be further from the truth. When I last bumped into him he had five books on the go, with two in the final stages of completion. He likes writing three books at a time, so if he hits a block with one character or plot, he puts it to one side and moves to another. He clearly loves the creative process and the fountain of ideas keeps coming from his pen and show no sign of abating either in terms of quality or quantity.

If you even have the opportunity of seeing the author give a talk at a literary festival or the like, I would strongly recommend that you do so. You will get a flavour of this remarkable and talented man. If you cannot see him in the flesh, you might be interested in a couple of interviews that are available on the Internet at the links supplied below.

The pictures of Alexander McCall Smith in this article are from Wikimedia.


Tam O'Ranter
April 2011

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