From my bookcase: Tea Time for the Traditionally Built: Alexander McCall Smith

Mma Precious Ramotswe is a large lady, so much so that her elderly car has developed a permanent dip on the driver’s side. But the heroine of Alexander McCall Smith’s No 1 Ladies Detective Agency series can make an advantage of any disadvantage. She is, she explains, full of national pride, ‘a Lady of Traditional Build’. All the other ladies and gentlemen – the Mmas and Rras of McCall Smith’s fictional Botswana – perfectly understand this distinction.

When her father dies she is left a little money and, having escaped from her no-good husband, the handsome but wicked musician Note Makoti – who will resurface later in the series to torment her – Precious decides to set up a detective agency. She names it The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, something she can legitimately do as is the only ladies detective agency in Botswana.

Imaginative business names are a feature of the series and part of the ongoing entertainment. Some of my favourites are Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, The Double Comfort Safari Club and – best of all in my view – the Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon.

I have never visited the real Botswana and am never likely to, and so I can continue to enjoy the comforting illusion that Botswana is an earthly paradise, the most civilised, the most beautiful, the most fertile place on earth, and filled with the loveliest and kindest of people, as Mma Ramotswe believes. She is naturally positive and has a knack for solving the everyday problems of her fellow Batswana with a combination of luck, common sense and excellent people skills.

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As the series goes on we are introduced to a huge cast of eccentric characters. Among others there are Mma Ramotswe’s second husband Mr J L B Matekoni, and her spikey and scarily ambitious sidekick Grace Makutsi – she of the unfortunate skin, the big glasses and the down-at-heel background in an out-of-the-way village, who conducts an ongoing conversation with her shoes. There is Violet Sephotho, that ‘Jezebel’ from secretarial college; there are Grace’s eventual husband Phuti Radiphuti and her eventual baby, the impressively named Itumelang Clovis Radiphuti. If you are one of the few people on the planet haven’t come across this series or seen the TV version, give it a go. You’ll probably love it. I say probably because there are people out there who don’t like Harry Potter, so anything is possible.

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built is number 10 in a series of 16, and very shortly to be 17 for, I have just discovered, the latest in the series is actually due for publication tomorrow, the 7th of September. Now there’s a coincidence! Unfortunately I am going to have to wait until the cheaper and more convenient paperback/second-hand version comes out in six months or so, but at least I know it’s out there, and waiting … It’s called:

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And as for Schrödinger…

Since I’ve been blogging I’ve realised something: I’m really, really square. See – I don’t even know what the current word for ‘square’ is, except that the very concept of squareness went out in the ‘60s. Or possibly the ‘50s. No doubt somebody will enlighten me.

There are so many things I don’t know. Yesterday I learned from a reader that there is an American author called Bukowski. Everybody on the internet seems to know all about Bukowski. For goodness sake, the poor man’s dead already and I’ve only just discovered he was alive. I ordered one of his books, entitled Women. I gather he liked women – women and alcohol. You know that ‘Look Inside’ arrow on Amazon? I looked inside. Yup, he definitely liked women. Still, I think, if I could get a quarter of the way through Last Exit to Brooklyn in 1971 (that hideous Tralala scene forced my exit from Last Exit) I can cope with Bukowski in 2016.

Nothing much shocks me now, in novels, except a dead dog. I’m afraid I love animals much more than people. People? Pah! I’m a cat lady, as my readers may know. I love cats, but not just cats – creatures in general. My mother used to repeat to all and sundry, a story about me. No, this is not the one she told the Mental Health Team psychiatrist (her psychiatrist, I hasten to add) about my having been an Unsatisfactory Infant. Apparently I just sat on her lap regarding her with a kind of fishy stare instead of – I don’t know, and don’t remember – what are babies supposed to do? Obviously, I failed my Being a Baby exam.

This story concerned a later encounter with a wasp. We had stopped at a roadside van/café and Dad bought us each a polystyrene mug of tea – probably tea rather than coffee, thinking back on it. Coffee was thought of as an overly-sophisticated American import in those days – certainly not suitable for children. Tea was safe enough. A wasp landed in my tea and I instantly emptied the whole mug onto the grass verge so that the wasp could escape. This was an eccentric thing to do, I gather. Afterwards I wondered about that. What would a normal person – a person who had passed their Being a Baby and subsequently their Being a Human Being exam with flying colours – what would they have done in those circumstances? A wasp is a wonder; a tiny, beautiful microcosm of the universe. Would they have taken pleasure in watching one die a slow and painful death in boiling liquid? Would they then have fished out its tiny, stripy corpse and drunk that liquid? That’s why I care more about creatures than people.

Even fictional ones. I read a literary novel a few years back – one of those ‘money’s worth’ ones with the five hundred or so chapters. I can’t remember the title or author now – female, Zadie Smith or someone of her ilk. I was fine with the listlessly failing marriage of couple concerned, their half-hearted adulteries in the afternoon and so forth. But then their little white dog got hit by a car and, enervated by all the adultery and failing-marriagery, they neglected to take their pet to be checked by the vet. They just assumed – in some minimally-alluded-to way – that he would get over his injuries in a day or so. He looked OK, more or less. But doggie died. To be fair, they did then feel quite bad, each of them, in their self-absorbed, bewildered, adulterous fashion. To be doubly fair, I would guess the authoress had deliberately set out to make this scene a shocker, and in that she succeeded. It was admirably crafted… but how could she have borne to write it?

They should have jumped off a fictional cliff hand in hand, or shot each other point blank with some handy, fictional blunderbuss. As far as I was concerned nothing could compensate for what that pair of numbskulls did to that poor, fictional dog. I shut the book with four hundred or so chapters left to go and didn’t open it again. Neither did I buy another of her novels. There’s no getting past a dead dog.

Similarly, if I read a book in which a cat appears to be taking centre stage – if the human characters, and particularly the heroine, seem rather fond of it; if it has a name; if it has an endearingly eccentric personality, and particularly if happens to be in a detective novel – I stop reading at once. The cat always gets it. Second to last chapter – poisoned milk, found floating face down in the water butt, or whatever happens to add a last sadistic twist to the plot. I can’t even approach a doomed cat.

And as for Schrödinger – that man had such a lot to answer for. I know it was a thought experiment but… not only is the hypothetical thought-moggie trapped in its hypothetical though-box in perpetuity with neither hypothetical thought-food nor hypothetical thought-water for succour, but that hypothetical thought-cat stands a 50:50 chance of being hypothetically gassed or poisoned or something by some hypothetical random decaying atom or circulating electron or something.

I hate him.