Laureation address: Professor Alexander McCall Smith

Friday 26 June 2015

Alexandar McCall Smith

Laureation by Professor Andrew Pettegree
School of History</stron g>

Chancellor, it is my privilege to present Professor Alexander McCall Smith for the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

It is now almost twenty years since Alexander McCall Smith unveiled one of the great creations of modern detective fiction: the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency and its tough, generous-hearted proprietor, Mrs Precious Ramotswe. Since that propitious day, Alexander McCall Smith has become a global publishing phenomenon, the author of over eighty books, now translated into fifty languages and sold in over twenty million copies. McCall Smith is the modern master of the serial novel. Alongside the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency we have the Isabel Dalhousie novels and 44 Scotland Street, shared with readers of the Scotsman in daily segments.

It is fair to say that Alexander McCall Smith has always been a writer; but until that day in 1999 when Precious Ramotswe first opened her detective agency, writing took second place to a distinguished academic career. A graduate of Edinburgh University, McCall Smith taught successively at Queen’s University Belfast and Edinburgh, where he became Professor of Medical Law. He is the co-author of the standard work on medical ethics, now in its eighth edition. He is a former Vice-Chairman of the Human Genetics Commission, and a member of the UNESCO Bioethics Commission. But McCall Smith is also a child of Africa. He was born in Bulawayo, now in Zimbabwe, where his father was a public prosecutor. In 1981 he returned to southern Africa for three years, to work at the newly established University of Botswana. There he co-wrote the fundamental text on the country’s legal system, The Criminal Law of Botswana. It is this deep love and intimate knowledge of Africa that gives the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency its special appeal. Beneath the gentle, generous comic plotting of the lives of Precious Ramotswe and her friends and clients, is serious intent, for this is a portrait of a successful society underpinned by traditional values, where the modern is represented by a dilapidated if much loved truck destined for careful maintenance in Mr JLB Matekoni’s Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors. This is an African society that works, dominated by a strong sense of community and the slow rhythms of the natural world; and where the values of the West can seem puzzlingly quaint and bizarre. Here is Mr JLB Matekoni, husband to Precious, in conversation with the sly manager of the orphan farm, who wishes to persuade the newly-weds to take on a couple of orphan children.

‘Some people are slow to give’, she said. ‘It is something to do with how their mothers brought them up. I have read all about this problem in a book. There is a doctor called Dr Freud who is very famous and has written many books about such people.’

‘Is he in Johannesburg?’ asked Mr JLB Matekoni.

‘I do not think so,’ said Mma Potokwani. ‘It is a book from London. But it is very interesting. He says that all boys are in love with their mother.’

‘That is natural,’ said Mr JLB Matekoni. ‘Of course boys love their mothers. Why should they not do so?’ Mma Potokwani shrugged. ‘I agree with you. I cannot see what is wrong with a boy loving his mother.’

‘Then why is Dr Freud worried about this?’ went on Mr JLB Matekoni. ‘Surely he should be worried if they did not love their mothers.’

Mma Potokwani looked thoughtful. ‘Yes. But he was still very worried about this and I think he tried to stop them.’

‘That is ridiculous,’ said Mr JLB Matekoni. ‘Surely he had better things to do with his time.’

‘You would have thought so,’ said Mma Potokwani. ‘But in spite of this Dr Freud, boys still go on loving their mothers, which is how it should be.’

It is inevitable that McCall Smith’s own academic profession would not escape unscathed, notably in the 2 ½ Pillars of Wisdom, a light, ingenious investigation of the ponderous world of Professor Moriz-Maria von Ingelfeld, of the Regensburg Institute of Romance Philology. Status conscious and obtuse, Professor von Ingelfeld is drawn into a sequence of baroque adventures where his German sense of propriety and academic dignity are frequently at risk. Rather than admit that he is not a qualified veterinary surgeon, he performs a triple amputation on an unfortunate sausage dog, who turns out to be the treasured pet of an esteemed colleague, who then takes his revenge with a savage denunciation of von Ingelfeld’s masterwork, Portuguese Irregular Verbs. Drawn to South America for induction into the local Academy, von Ingelfeld finds himself in the middle of a military coup and briefly President of Columbia. This is McCall Smith in a nutshell. Faced with the choice of the quiet daily round of coffee in the Regensburg Institute of Philology, one feels that McCall Smith would always opt for manning the machine gun with the revolutionaries, just for the sheer fun of it. And even if the unfortunate sausage dog has ultimately to be handed over to the Catholic Church, along with the saint’s bones it has inadvertently ingested, these are light, generous books: in von Ingelfeld’s journey to understanding, we witness the triumph of the human spirit over our sometimes crushing limitations.

This too is the spirit of the No 1 Ladies Detective Agency: a portrait of a society that works because people are ultimately decent and good-hearted. And these books come alive because Alexander McCall Smith is himself full of life and fun and because he captures the essence of a personality in beautifully crafted prose. Let us conclude with Mr JLB Matekoni beginning his day before opening up the Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors.

‘It was six o’clock, and the first light of the day was on the thorn tree outside his bedroom window. Smoke from morning fires, the fine wood smoke that sharpened the appetite, would soon be in the air, and he would hear the sound of people on the paths that criss-crossed the bush near his house; shouts of children on their way to school; men going sleepy-eyed to their work in the town; women calling out to one another; Africa waking up and starting the day.’

Chancellor, in recognition of his major contribution to medical science, literature and law, I invite you to confer on Professor Alexander McCall Smith the degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa.

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