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Whilst I love all of McCall Smith’s writings, I think this series of his is my favourite. And to sooth my soul as I embarked upon revision I have just been re-reading a selection of the series: Friends, Lovers, Chocolate; The Careful Use of Compliments; The Comfort of Saturdays; and The Lost Art of Gratitude.

For those of you not familiar with the series you can hear McCall Smith talking about it in the Philosophers Zone (which discusses many other interesting things and you can subscribe to as a podcast). Isabel Dalhousie, the central character, edits the journal of Applied Ethics, and her life is a rich philosophical one.

The problem, or blessing, for Isabel is that of moral proximity. She believes that once we are in moral proximity to someone their issues or problems become our issues and problems, and it is this stance that draws Isabel into situations. Whether hearts have memories, the faking of paintings, ruined careers, and how to respond to a plea for help that may not be innocently made. Along the way Isabel makes many mistakes, and yet she is always forgiven, and always brings things to a suitable conclusion, because at heart she is a good person and means well. In between her solving of problems Isabel edits her journal, secures her younger lover, and discovers the wonders of motherhood, watched over all the while by brother fox.  

Like all of McCall Smith’s writings these books are deceptively simple, and yet they are exceedingly rich in moral speculation. Isabel grapples constantly with the issue of how we should live our lives. To whom do we owe what? What are our duties? Who has a right to make a demand on us? She shows us how we can become better people, by living just a little more deeply and questioning just a little bit more.

And through all this she gets her pleasures in life through the simple things. From the chilled glass of wine, served with a simple omelette, from the feel of the sun on your skin, from taking the time to meet friends for lunch and living in and savouring the moment when she thinks, “Will I remember this, every moment of this, being here, in this beautiful place”. And she makes me aim to do the same, and that is why I’m ever so grateful to McCall Smith for having created her.


I ordered this book as it’s the reading for the Royal Society, History of Science Book Group’s August meet-up. I might not be able to make that event (it’s clashing with a late at the Science Museum), but I’m glad to have had the opportunity to read a book that I probably wouldn’t have stumbled across otherwise. The book was long-listed for the Royal Society Science Book Prize 2010, and it’s not difficult to see why.

Medieval conceptions of science were totally different to our own, and are often very difficult to grasp, given their completely different world view. But Hannam smooths the corners away, helping us understand the important role of magic and astrology in moving knowledge forward, and how medieval Catholicism was actually often a force for improved scientific knowledge rather than against it. He even manages to, half, rehabilitate that dread organisation: the Inquisition! And he does all this while making us aware of the, often unacknowledged, debt that ‘modern’ scientific thinkers from the renaissance onwards owe to their medieval forebears.

My only quibble with this book is that Hannam defends medieval thinkers a little too zealously. I have no doubt that their contribution to the birth of modern science, and the advancements that were made in the Renaissance, has been woefully underestimated. But I also think that Hannam goes a little too far the other way. Whilst he bemoans the use of the term the ‘dark ages’, the period up to 1000 AD (so the 600 years after the fall of the Roman Empire) get a scant 20 pages in his book – for a very good reason – not a lot happened.

In fact, there’s only another 40 pages from that up to the 12th century, which Hannam calls a renaissance in itself. And if you accept that the Renaissance ‘proper’ began in the late 13th century, then most of the book isn’t actually taken up with the medieval period at all. However, the section that is does describe some interesting advancements, especially in architecture,  mathematics, and related to that astrology and clock-making.

But much of the time of medieval scholars seemed to be spent either in darkness, or in trying to access and understand the knowledge of the Islamic world. Hannam seems to be playing a sleight of hand by taking a large period of time which most people accept as the early Renaissance and rebranding it as the late medieval period, so he can hold up the accomplishments of medieval scholars.

That aside, it is a fascinating book, making a dry and difficult subject accessible and enjoyable. And I can forgive Hannam his zeal as he does illuminate the debt modern science owes to those scholars who went before them – whatever period they were working in.

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