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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.


This came as a blessed relief. The past couple of books I’ve been reading I’ve struggled with a little.  And my lunchtime book, The House of Hunger (part of my African Writer challenge) is rather brutal, plus work is challenging at the moment and I’m trying to revise. So, all-in-all I fancied a pleasant read. So, at lunchtime on Friday I wandered up to the Trafalgar Square Waterstones to hunt out some Alexander McCall Smith gems.

I did buy quite a few, and I won’t bore you with the details of my thoughts on each of them as I read them, as I have fairly similar reactions to them all anyway – and I buy them to get that particular reaction. But I’ll blog about this one, and I’ll probably do a general blog on the Sunday Philosophy Club ones when I’ve meandered through them.

Now there’s nothing difficult or conceptually hard about McCall Smith’s books, but they are erudite and considered. They contemplate life on a slightly different plain to that which most of us occupy for most of the time. And they make me consider things too: how we should behave towards others; the importance of courtesy; the value of friendship.

And this one is no different. I understand that this was initially an serialisation in the Telegraph and then an on-line podcast, and I could see how that would work well. Given that initial format it’s understandable that the chapters are much shorter than is normal in his books. This does mean that the story seems to jump around a little, and that you don’t really have time to ponder much before he moves onto another fascinating point, but it still flows enough for this not to really be an issue.

Getting onto the actual content – well it’s classic. In Corduroy Mansions in Pimlico William, Master of Wine (failed) acquires an ex-sniffer dog, Freddie de la Hay, as a ruse to dislodge his useless son from his flat, whilst also trying to, kindly, ward off the attentions of his  friend Marcia. Meanwhile, downstairs Caroline tries to escape that picture of her in Rural Living while contemplating her friendship with James, and one of her flatmates, Jenny, earns her living by working for Oedipus Snark, a vile MP.

Maybe not quite as good as the Scotland Street series, but it still delivers the same feel-good reaction and reflective mood. And so much better than every other printed piece of matter I’m reading presently.

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