CORDUROY MANSIONS - Book 2
In the Corduroy Mansions series of novels, set in London’s hip Pimlico neighborhood, we meet a cast of charming eccentrics, including perhaps the world’s most clever terrier, who make their home in a handsome, though slightly dilapidated, apartment block.
The second installment in Alexander McCall Smith’s newest beloved series follows the further adventures of Freddie de la Hay, Pimlico terrier, and the wonderfully motley crew of his fellow residents in the elegantly crumbling London mansion block, Corduroy Mansions.
A pair of New Age operators has determined that Terence Moongrove’s estate is the ideal location for their Centre for Cosmological Studies. Literary agent Barbara Ragg has decided to represent a man who is writing a book about his time “hanging out” with the abominable snowman. And our small, furry, endlessly surprising canine hero, Freddie de la Hay, has been recruited by MI6 to infiltrate a Russian spy ring. Needless to say, the other denizens of Corduroy Mansions have issues of their own. But all of them will be addressed with the wit, charm, and insight into the foibles of the human condition that have become the hallmark of this truly peerless storyteller.
1. What Our Furniture Says About Us
William French, wine merchant, Master of Wine (failed), somewhere in his early ﬁfties (hardly noticeably, particularly in the right light), loyal subscriber to Rural Living (although he lived quite happily in central London), longtime supporter of several good causes (he was a kind man at heart, with a strong sense of fairness), widower, dog-owner, and much else besides; the same William French looked about his ﬂat in Corduroy Mansions, as anybody might survey his or her ﬂat in a moment of self-assessment, of stocktaking.
There was a lot wrong with it, he decided, just as he felt there was a lot that was not quite right with his life in general. Sorting out one’s ﬂat, though, is often easier than sorting out oneself, and there is a great deal to be said for ﬁrst getting one’s ﬂat in order before attempting the same thing with one’s life. Perhaps there was an adage for this—a pithy Latin expression akin to mens sana in corpore sano. Which made him think . . . Everybody knew that particular expression, of course; everybody, that is, except William’s twenty-eight-year-old son, Eddie, who had once rendered it within his father’s hearing as “men’s saunas lead to a healthy body.” William had been about to laugh at this ingenious translation, redolent, as it was, of the cod Latin he had found so achingly funny as a twelve-year-old boy: Caesar adsum iam forte, Pompey ad erat. Pompey sic in omnibus, Caesar sic in at. Caesar had some jam for tea, Pompey had a rat . . . and so on. But then he realised that Eddie was serious.
The discovery that Eddie had no knowledge of Latin had depressed him. He knew that the overwhelming majority of people had no Latin and did not feel the lack of it. The problem with Eddie, though, was that not only did he not have Latin, he had virtually nothing else either: no mathematics worthy of the name, no geography beyond a knowledge of the location of various London pubs, no knowledge of biology or any of the other natural sciences, no grasp of history. When it came to making an inventory of what Eddie knew, there was really very little to list.
He put his son out of his mind and returned to thinking about the proposition mens sana in corpore sano. Was there an equivalent, he wondered, to express the connection between an ordered ﬂat and an ordered life? Vita ordinata in domo ordinata? It sounded all right, he felt—indeed, it sounded rather impressive—but he found himself feeling a little bit unsure about the Latin. Domus was feminine, was it not? But was it not one of those fourth declension nouns where there was an alternative ablative form—domu rather than domo? William was not certain, and so he put that out of his mind too.
He walked slowly about his ﬂat, moving from room to room, thinking of what would be necessary to reform it completely. Starting in the drawing room, he looked at the large oriental carpet that dominated the centre of the room. It was said that some such carpets gained in value as the years went past, but he could not see this happening to his red Baluch carpet, which was beginning to look distinctly tattered at the edges. Then there was the furniture, and here there was no doubt that the chairs, if once they had been fashionable, no longer were. If there was furniture that spoke of its decade, then these chairs positively shouted the seventies, a period in which it was generally agreed design lost its way. It would all, he thought, have to be got rid of and replaced with the sort of furniture that he saw advertised in the weekend magazines of the newspapers. Timeless elegance was the claim made on behalf of such furniture, and timeless elegance, William considered, was exactly what he needed.
He would give his own furniture to one of those organisations that collect it and pass it on to people who have no furniture of their own and no money to buy any. The thought of this process gave him a feeling of warmth. He could just imagine somebody in a less favoured part of London waiting with anticipation as a completely free consignment of surplus furniture—in this case William’s—was unloaded. He pictured a person who had previously sat on the ﬂoor now sitting comfortably on this Corduroy Mansions armchair, not noticing the large stain on the cushion of which Eddie had denied all knowledge, though it was deﬁnitely his responsibility. It was a most unpleasant stain, that one, and William had never enquired as to exactly what it was. Yet he had noticed that Marcia, when she had lived with him, had studiously avoided ever sitting on that chair. And who could blame her?
Our furniture, he reﬂected, says so much about us, and our tastes—perhaps more than we like to acknowledge. We may not like a piece of furniture now, but the awkward fact remains that we once were a person who liked it. And unlike clothes, which are jettisoned with passing fashion, furniture has a habit of staying with us, reminding us of tasteless stages of our lives. William looked at his settee; he had bought it at a furniture shop off the Tottenham Court Road—he remembered that much—but he would never buy something like that now. And certainly not in that colour. Did they still make mauve furniture? he wondered.
He moved on to the kitchen. William liked his kitchen, and often sat there on summer evenings, looking out of the window over the rooftops behind Corduroy Mansions, watching the sun sink over west London. Sometimes, if conditions were right, the dying sun would touch the edge of the clouds with gold, making for a striking contrast with the sky beyond, as sharply delineated as in a Maxﬁeld Parrish painting. He would sit there and think about nothing in particular, vaguely grateful for the display that nature was providing but also conscious of the fact that there was not enough beauty in his life and that it would be nice to have more.
Now, surveying his kitchen from the doorway, he saw not the outside vista but the inside—the cork ﬂoor that needed replacing, the scratched surfaces that surely fostered an ecosystem in which whole legions, entire divisions of Pseudomonas were encamped. Best not to think about that, nor about the bacteria which undoubtedly romped around the faithful body of his dog, Freddie de la Hay, who was sitting on the kitchen ﬂoor, looking up at his master in mute adoration, and wondering, perhaps, what the problem was.
Excerpted from The Dog Who Came in from the Cold by Alexander McCall Smith. Copyright © 2011 by Alexander McCall Smith. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House LLC. 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.
1. The opening pages of The Dog Who Came in from the Cold find William French reflecting on furniture. “Our furniture,” he ruminates, “says so much about us—perhaps more than we would like to acknowledge” [p.5]. Clothes are easier to change with passing fashions than furniture. Do you have furniture than reminds you of a particular stage in your life, perhaps more than you would wish?
2. On a different floor of Corduroy Mansions, Caroline is weighing her options. “I just don’t know what to do,” she confided in her mother… “There are these two men, you see, and I really don’t know which one to choose. But maybe I should choose neither” [p. 22]. What do you make of Caroline’s quandary? Have you ever been forced to chose between two people you love?
3. Caroline’s mother’s generation would never have seen choosing to remain alone as an option. What has changed in society to make this a valid alternative?
4. Not far away at the Ragg Porter Literary Agency, the tensions between Barbara and Rupert over Barbara’s flat are likened to the hostilities between Ecuador and Peru: “There had never been open hostilities . . . just enough to keep the matter alive but not sufficient to lead to actual conflict” [p. 33]. Have you ever had to work with someone in these conditions? Knowing Rupert and his wife covet Barbara’s flat, why do you think she would risk giving them a key?
5. Barbara is still trying to work on Autobiography of a Yeti. What do you think of Erroll Greatorex’s story? Do you believe that just because you don’t/can’t see something that means it doesn’t exist? If Rupert and Gloria are so convinced that the idea of a yeti is ridiculous, why do they continue to track it across London?
6. While Caroline and her newly-acquainted neighbor are having tea, Berthea theorizes that liberal social change has taken away people’s ability to belong, causing a sense of purposelessness [p. 43-44]. By creating nations where there are small communities, combining churches and streamlining dialects to form one single language, society has “destroyed the familiar . . . weakened the notion of order . . . People used to have a sense of what their lives meant because they belonged to things.” Discuss how you feel about this idea.
7. William’s friend and former flatmate Marcia loves to cook—especially for men. “I know I should be all independent and self-sufficient and so on, but that’s just not me . . . [W]hat if I’m fulfilled by doing things for other people?” she asks a friend [p. 63]. He friend calls her “inauthentic” in return. Which side do you take in this exchange? Is it possible to be old-fashioned in a politically correct society?
8. Meanwhile, our canine hero, Freddie de la Hay, has been recruited by the MI6 (with the help of Angelica Brockelbank and Sebastian Duck). Why does William let them take Freddie? Discuss the importance of serving your country versus keeping your loved ones safe.
9. On a smaller, albeit equally important level (in the eyes of Freddie de la Hay), what do people owe to their pets? Companionship? Care? Kindness? Are we their owners? Protectors? Friends? [See pp. 134-135.]
10. Berthea Snark is quite straightforward when it comes to dealing with her feelings for her family. She continues to write the not-very-favorable biography of her son, Oedipus, while feeling sorry for her brother—“Dear Terence! What a disaster area he is!” [p. 94]. Although she appears to love Terence, she is condescending toward his “magical thinking” [p. 96]. Discuss Berthea’s relationship with Terence. Does she show him respect? What could Berthea learn from Terence?
11. Caroline’s life becomes more difficult when she finds herself jealous that Dee went to dinner with James. Throughout the book, the way Caroline thinks of herself (and the way people view her) takes on many different tones. How does it change when James describes the way he feels toward her? What about when Caroline speaks with her flatmate, Jo? And Caroline’s discussion with her own mother? How does seeing yourself through another’s eyes help you reflect upon your own life?
12. When she meets Claire and Rog, Berthea feels the need to defend her brother against these two people that would scheme against him to steal his home. While Berthea would normally consider herself a rational person, her plan to dress Lennie Marchbanks as the Green Man seems a bit over-the-top, especially when she lies to Terence to cover up her scheme. How does this change your opinion of her? Is she protecting her brother or her childhood home? How do you think Terence would react if he found out?
13. The most overarching theme in this book seems to be about home: Barbara finds a home with Hugh, Berthea helps Terence save his house, William brings Freddie de la Hay home, even Rupert gets his flat. How much does home have to do with where a person lives versus where a person comes from? What about where a person belongs?