Bertie Plays the Blues is the latest instalment in the 44 Scotland Street series. I love McCall Smith’s Edinburgh novels. I spent a day in Edinburgh on my one & only (so far) trip to the UK in 1999 & I’ve always loved Scottish history & literature so spending even one day in Edinburgh was wonderful. I went to John Knox’s House, the Scott Memorial, the Portrait Gallery, stood outside Holyroodhouse (didn’t have time to go in & see Rizzio’s bloodstain on the floor, unfortunately). It was a lovely day. Reading the Scotland Street & Isabel Dalhousie series takes me back there.
The Scotland Street books are serial novels first published in The Scotsman newspaper & then in book form. All of McCall Smith’s writing is funny, affectionate, gentle & sensible. I use sensible as a compliment! There are several passages in this latest book where the author gently satirizes the tendency of the authorities to put up signs warning citizens not to do various dangerous things. Obviously they don’t want to be sued but isn’t it a shame that we can no longer rely on the common sense of people not to do stupid things & then, when they hurt themselves doing those stupid things, rely on them taking the blame for their own stupidity rather than suing the nearest local authority? There’s so much affection for all the characters in this book that I found myself smiling as I read, often sighing with complete satisfaction.
McCall Smith has often said that he’s surprised & touched by the interest readers have in Bertie Pollock, the put-upon 6 year old son of ineffectual Stuart & horrendous over-achiever, Irene. In this instalment, Bertie, with the help of his computer-savvy friend, Ranald Braveheart Macpherson, decide to put himself up for adoption on eBay. Bertie hopes a nice family in Glasgow (where he has several friends) will put in a bid for him. When eBay, understandably, take down their post, the boys decide to go to Glasgow & find an adoption agency themselves. Bertie has come to the end of his tolerance for the saxophone, Italian conversazione & visits to yet another psychotherapist. He wants to play rugby & go to Cub Scouts, although even there he has to put up with Tofu & Olive.
Art gallery owner Matthew & his lovely wife, Elspeth, are now the parents of triplets – Rognvald, Tobermory & Fergus. Matthew asks his former assistant (& sometime girlfriend), Pat Macgregor, to help out at the gallery so he can spend more time at home. All is going well, apart from the sleep deprivation, until Matthew removes the babies’ ID bracelets & they can’t tell them apart. Salvation comes in the form of an angel from Denmark, nanny Anna, who saves their sanity.
Angus Lordie’s engagement to Domenica Macdonald hits a snag when they try to decide where they’re going to live. Domenica wants to sell Angus’s flat but, as it’s also his studio, he’s resisting the idea. Then there’s the fate of their friend, Antonia, who suffered an attack of Stendhal syndrome on a trip to Italy & is still there, cared for by the nuns of a convent in Tuscany.
Big Lou, owner of the local coffee shop, is also looking for change in her life. Lou has never had much luck with men & when she decides to try Internet dating, her first date with a man with a curious job may lead to better things. Pat Macgregor accompanies Lou on this date for moral support & runs into her former boyfriend, Bruce Anderson, “surveyor, perfect narcissist, user of clove-scented hair gel, Lothario“. Pat is helpless to resist Bruce but, after he is unable to meet her for dinner because he slipped on his tube of clove-scented hair gel as he got out of the shower & ended up in Casualty with a broken leg, his flatmate, Neil, arrives to save the day.
McCall Smith’s gentle, humorous style, is so reassuring. Even the awful characters like Bruce & Irene are treated with affection. Bruce’s leg isn’t too badly broken & he doesn’t really mind missing his date with Pat because he’s so self-involved that he’s forgotten all about her already. Irene may be misguided but she loves Bertie & wants him to have the best opportunities. She just doesn’t listen to him. At the end of the book, there’s some hope that things are about to change for Bertie when Irene hears some home truths & buys him some jeans instead of the pink dungarees he’s always hated. Like the books of P G Wodehouse, nothing too bad ever happens in McCall Smith-land. I can’t wait for the next instalment.