Interview: Alexander McCall Smith, author, and CBE in the New Year Honours

by
10 January 2007

‘I admire Botswana greatly. It is a remarkable nation'

I am immensely cheered by the fine work which is being done by the Anglican Church in Botswana. I have the pleasure of knowing the Bishop of Botswana, the Rt Revd Trevor Mwamba, who is bringing great energy and commitment to his post. The African sense of spirituality is very strong, and it is always moving to encounter it. It has a great deal to say to our selfish and materialistic societies.

Generally speaking, Botswana has very good medical facilities, but obviously these are strained by the burden which AIDS has placed upon the country; the sadness which it has brought is beyond description. I have met some of the people involved with the Botswana Hospice [Anglican] project in Gaborone, and I have been impressed by their dedication to helping those in pain and need. In my view, the love and care which a hospice can bring to somebody in the final days of their life is of the very greatest importance.

One of the people whom I have most admired is my great friend Dr Howard Moffat. Howard, who is a doctor in Botswana, is a Canon of the Anglican Cathedral in Gaborone. He has spent his life caring for other people, and his Christian example is a shining one.

I grew up in Zimbabwe rather than Botswana, and actually now live in Edinburgh, but, as an adult, I have had much stronger connections with Botswana than anywhere else in Africa. It is a remarkable country, and I admire it greatly for what it has achieved. It stands for something which is very important: respect for human rights, and integrity in public life.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency was inspired, I suppose, by my overall experience of Botswana, although the instance in which I watched a traditionally built woman chasing a chicken was certainly the germ of the idea. Before I wrote that book, I had written a considerable number of children’s books — more than 30 — and I had also written short stories.

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There is no actual Mma Ramotswe, but I have met many women who are very like her. I suppose that she is a mixture of all these people.

I don’t do anything connected with the law any more. I had to choose between that and being an author, and I decided upon the latter. I used to be a Professor of Medical Law at the University of Edinburgh, and I also taught law at the University in Botswana some time ago. It is possible that my writing of fiction was some sort of release from the rather different intellectual diet of a law professor.

I find it very difficult to choose between my own books as to which I like most. I find it a little bit like having to choose between one’s friends or relatives. However, I suppose that I am particularly fond of the Mma Ramotswe books; but I also very much like Espresso Tales, which is the second volume in my 44 Scotland Street series.

I have been influenced by a wide range of books. As a child, I was very much taken by Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia, which I read from cover to cover — all 20 volumes.

At the moment, I am reading a really charming book by Roger Hutchinson, Calum’s Road, which is the story of a crofter on a Scottish island who decides to build a road when the local authorities decline to do so.

W. H. Auden has been a great influence. I think that Auden’s voice was a marvellously humane one, and I take constant inspiration from his poems.

Family is an important part of my life. My two daughters are now away at university, but come home as often as they can. I have three sisters, with whom I am in contact every day, although two of them live in British Columbia. I am also regularly in contact with nephews, nieces, and cousins. It is a great blessing in this life to have a close family. The destruction of the family through misguided policies is a staggering tragedy, the consequences of which will continue to be felt for a long time.

I think I was always keen to be an author, although, like most boys, I had dreams of a number of things. It is a wonderful feature of childhood that one imagines that one can do anything.

For many people, the most important choice in their life must be that of their husband or wife. I have been most fortunate in making the right choice. Most of us have done things which we regret. I am no exception.

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Being realistic, I imagine that if anyone were ever to remember me, it would probably be for having written the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. I would be quite happy to be remembered for that.

I am afraid that I don’t remember many sermons. A few months ago, however, I attended a service in a lovely little church in Dorset conducted by my cousin, the Revd Michael Anderson, who, after more than one distinguished career, has now been ordained.

I like the Psalms. There are large parts of the Bible, I am afraid, that I don’t find very interesting.

I don’t tend to get angry very often. I am at my happiest when I am at home and have the prospect of spending a quiet evening with my wife and a couple of friends round for supper.

Fairtrade chocolate is always very tempting; and there is a good fairtrade Red Bush tea. Also, diamonds from African countries are perfectly legitimately and fairly obtained. Botswana diamonds have been the basis on which the country’s very sound educational and health infrastructures have been built. I think it would be very sad if people start to question African diamonds across the board, and ignore the jobs and prosperity which diamonds have provided in countries such as Botswana.

Iona is a very spiritual place. One can get there the sense of what it must have been like for those early Scottish saints. Of course, the term saint was used quite liberally in those days, and virtually anybody who ran a church was called saint.

I am a keen, but pretty useless amateur musician. I love wind instruments, and have a collection of extremely interesting instruments, including a magnificent contra bassoon; a saxophone made in Adolph Sax’s studio; and a serpent, an instrument which was used a great deal in church music.

Undoubtedly, Mma Ramotswe would be a good person to get locked in a church with. She would quickly find a way to make some Red Bush tea and, having done that, would use her considerable skills of intuition to get us out again.

Interview by Rachel Harden. For more information about the Botswana Hospice, phone USPG: 020 7928 8681.

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