After reading Tales of the City, I decided that it was probably appropriate for me to read 44 Scotland Street, Alexander McCall Smith’s story originally serialised in the Scotsman. I always find it interesting reading stories that are set in places that I know, to see what the authors do with the familiar settings and societies. Like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, 44 Scotland Street is set in Edinburgh, though it’s more closely tied in to the geography of the city and features a number of real-life people amid the fictional characters.
Where to begin? I can tell that the book is good. My girlfriend really likes it, McCall Smith’s writing is good, and it is a very accurate picture of a certain part of Edinburgh’s society. So why was I bored for most of the way through it? Perhaps exactly because it is an accurate of picture of Edinburgh, as almost all of the characters slot into the upper middle class stereotype which makes them insufferable. It’s obvious that the novel is satirising these people, but at the same time, knowing that doesn’t make it easier to read about them. We’re supposed to feel infuriated at the frankly abysmal parenting of the Pollock family (whose 5-year-old Bertie is a forced child prodigy raised under the influence of Melanie Klein), and think that Bruce, the arrogant womaniser is a self-important misogynist, and that Raeburn Todd, Bruce’s boss, is a rather oblivious and out of touch Scottish Conservative. Although I knew this in theory, I still didn’t take any pleasure in reading about them.
Nor did I feel that most of the sustained plots were actually very interesting. Okay so reading about a conflicted Child Psychologist projecting his theories onto Bertie was amusing, but smaller plots, like Bruce’s visit to a Tory ball, or a subterranean jaunt around Edinburgh were just uninspiring. The big conflict running through the story is over the possibly identity of a painting by the famous Scottish Colourist, Samuel Peploe, but the characters concerned are so hard to empathise with that I simply didn’t care about it when the painting went missing, hoping against hope that this would be the end of it. Except of course, it isn’t, and after a series of wacky adventures, the searchers end up in a rather surreal conversation with a hot-tubbing Ian Rankin (yes, that Ian Rankin). It’s all just feels a bit like whimsy for the sake of cheap recognition, as though McCall Smith is including characters like Rankin, Tam Dalyell and references to famous contemporary Scots like Jack Vettriano and Malcolm Rifkind, to show how authentic this story is. To be fair, if you live in the part of Edinburgh I do, you do occasionally walk into Ian Rankin (Once, literally. Oops!), and I know that I said I liked to see what authors do with familiar settings, but in print, in this instance, none of it feels sincere.
In a way it’s easy to see Maupin’s influence even beyond the medium. The closest thing we have to a primary protagonist is Pat MacGregor who, like Mary-Ann Singleton, is a young woman with little direction in her life who has just left home to move into a tenement flat with a load of complete strangers, including an arrogant alpha male and a kindly elder lady that immediately takes a shine to her. The weed has been traded for hair gel, but apart from that, it’s strikingly similar. There’s less cultural and sociological diversity than in Tales of the City, but then again, I challenge you to find a major world city that is less culturally and sociologically diverse in comparison to San Francisco than Edinburgh (not counting the month of August during the Edinburgh Festivals).
As a portrayal of modern Edinburgh, 44 Scotland Street is great, and I imagine, as a serialised work of fiction it works better than it does reading it all in one go, but frankly I don’t think I’ll bother with reading any more instalments in the series.