Excerpted from The Importance of Being Seven by Alexander McCall Smith. Copyright © 2012 by Alexander McCall Smith. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the beloved, bestselling No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the 44 Scotland Street series, and the Corduroy Mansions series. He is also the author of numerous children’s books. He is professor emeritus of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and has served with many national and international organizations concerned with bioethics. He was born in what is now known as Zimbabwe and taught law at the University of Botswana. He lives in Scotland. Visit his website at www.alexandermccallsmith.com.
Preface to The Importance of Being Seven
I started writing the 44 Scotland Street series without any idea that it would turn into something of a saga. Now here we are six volumes later, returning to the world of that motley collection of people who live in the Edinburgh New Town and whose lives I have recorded in daily episodes in the Scotsman newspaper. I am very pleased to be back amongst these characters, and do not intend this to be my last visit to them. Domenica Macdonald, Angus Lordie, and all the others have somehow become part of my world, just as I believe they have become part of the world of quite a number of readers in many countries. That, incidentally, gives me the greatest possible pleasure—the knowledge that we are all linked by our friendship with a group of fictional people. What a pleasant club of which to be a member!
I am often asked at events whether I have a favourite fictional character. I find that a difficult question to answer, but it is certainly the case that Bertie, the six-year-old boy in these novels, is somebody for whom I have particular affection. It will not have escaped the attention of readers that Bertie started as a five-year-old five volumes ago and has not really progressed very far. In fact, Bertie is still awaiting his seventh birthday, although it does not actually happen in this book. Why has time stood still for Bertie? The main reason for this, I think, is that Bertie at six is absolutely perfect, and I have no wish for him to grow up. He is at that wonderful stage where he understands the world, but not quite; when his mother is still in complete control of his life; when he has yet to learn how to lie and dissemble, or indeed to be cruel, in the way in which adults seem to find so easy. His world is an attractive one—a sort of Eden—from which we know we are excluded by the loss of our own innocence.
I have lost count of the number of times I have met people on my book tours who say to me that Bertie is a special character for them. This happens throughout the world. Earlier this year I was McCain India, at the Jaipur Literary Festival, and I met numerous Bertie fans there. The same was true in Australia, Singapore, Dubai and Hong Kong—places that I went to after my Indian trip. The question I was asked most frequently in each of these places was the same: when will things get better for Bertie? And in each of these places there was a great groundswell of support for this poor little boy, egging him on, wishing him freedom from the regime of improvement planned for him by his mother, Irene, and siding with him against the dreadful Olive and the appalling Tofu. I wish I could have said that things were soon to change, but, alas, that would have been untruthful. Bertie’s situation is as difficult as ever; his is a hearth from which freedom seems for ever excluded. And that, alas, is true for so many of us. How many of us are really free of our past, of the things we have to do that we do not want to do, of the furniture of our life that is never really in quite the right place? Perhaps that is why Bertie is so popular. He reminds us of a yearning that many of us instinctively recognize within ourselves: the yearning to be seven—really seven.
I have dedicated this book to one of our greatest broadcasters, James Naughtie. James is a central pillar of the national conversation that we have with each other in Britain. I can imagine him engaging with any of the characters in this book—interviewing Angus Lordie, perhaps, on some artistic project, talking to Domenica Macdonald about her latest anthropological essay, or simply chatting to Big Lou about Arbroath and her years in Aberdeen. But he could also talk to Bertie, I think, and Bertie would be comforted by the conversation. James would make Bertie feel seven, even if he is still six, and that, I think, is a great art. Thank you, James, for everything you have done for me, for the cause of rational debate, and for the millions of people to whom you have brought enlightenment, amusement, and comfort.
Alexander McCall Smith
Excerpted from The Importance of Being Seven by Alexander McCall Smith Copyright © 2012 by Alexander McCall Smith. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.