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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.

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As I’m taking a philosophy course with the Open University I’ve had the pleasure of hearing Peter Cave on some of the issues discussed in this book. At first in a tutorial, although sadly he isn’t my regular tutor (although that did save me from the annoying woman who turned every philosophical discussion into an irrelevant mini-lecture on her life, but I digress), and secondly at our day school where he plugged this book – and I’m glad he did.

Peter brings his unique, and slightly odd, sense of humour to bear on a number of age-old philosophical problems such as the use (and abuse) of utilitarianism, the problem of evil and whether relativism is a defensible position in bite size chunks examined from an unusual perspective.

I have followed his recommendation and read a problem a day. I’m finding it a lot easier to digest philosophy with my toast than I thought I would and it tends to leaves me gently questioning my actions (and probably irritating my work colleagues) throughout the day.