Wednesday, February 11, 2009


I attended a most agreeable lunch yesterday at Auckland’s Stamford Plaza at one of the occasional, and always popular Dymocks Literary Lunches.

On this occasion the guest of honour was “serial novelist”, (his description!), creator of the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Alexander McCall Smith.

The sell-out, mainly female crowd of around 150, were treated to a most pleasant light lunch before being hugely entertained by the tall, agreeable, affable and avuncular author in his smart, if somewhat slightly crumpled suit, (not surprising after three weeks on the road).

He has over 60 books to his credit including the abovementioned and award winning No.1 Ladies Detective Agency as well as the 44 Scotland Street, von Igelfeld, Sunday Philosophy Club and Corduroy Mansions series. He is a prolific writer, and may well be the fastest pen in the West! Certainly he is a publishing phenomenon.
His latest title, Tea Time for the Traditionally Built, was selling like hot cakes before and after lunch.

Smith was for many years Professor of Medical Law at the University of Ediburgh before he burst on the literary scene in 1999 with the first book in the No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series. His books have now been published in over 40 languages which is most impressive indeed.

As a speaker he proved to be very much like his books - good humoured, quirky and immensely entertaining - and he had us in stitches on a variety of subjects including first sentences in novels, Karen Blixen, book clubs, the responsibility of editors to find the mistakes of authors, Walter Scott, Proust, gall stones, excessively pushy mothers and of course many of the much-loved characters from his novels. He confessed to being a serial novelist, and mentioned others, an affliction for which he said there was no known cure.

Alexander McCall Smith has strong connections with New Zealand, his grandfather, George Marshall McCall Smith, having emigrated here in 1914 to set up medical practice in the Hokianga district where he did his rounds on horseback and by boat. Later he was responsible for setting up the local hospital at Rawene where there is a memorial to him. He was greatly involved in health reform, particularly with the first Labour Governemnt of 1935.He was widely respected in the district and beyond. He is listed in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography.

Thanks to Dymocks for another excellently organized and entertaining event.
Veteran bookseller and book reviewer Doris Mousdale introduced the guest and it is interesting to note that way back in 1989, when employed by Whitcoulls, she set up the first of these literary lunches in this very same venue, although back then the hotel was called The Regent. The speaker at the first event was Kim Philby followed shortly after by Bryce Courtenay and then Michael Palin who was promoting the first of his popular travel books, Around the World in 80 Days. I remember quite clearly being at that event and also at another one of the early lunches addressed by P.D.James. Thanks Doris for all that you do for books in New Zealand, you are a gem.

Thanks also to Alexander McCall Smith for an entertaining hour. I had the good fortune to be seated next to him during lunch and we spoke of his extensive NZ family connections, my publishing days, similarities between Scotland and New Zealand, pipe bands and Dunedin, the New Delhi Book Fair he had attended last week which was attended by 2.5 million people, blogging, e-books and the question of royalties thereon, the selection of book titles and a host of other matters of interest to authors and reviewers. He was most genial company and I hope he doesn't leave it another four years before his next visit down under.

And here is a story about Smith which was in The telegraph last September. He has featured often on this blog.


I referred above to Kim Philby being the first guest speaker at the literary lunches organised by Doris Mousdale. Several blog readers immediately contacted me querying whether this could possibly be so including Timaru bookseller Jeff Grigor who wrote:

Surely your memory is at fault in claiming that Kim Philby was at an Auckland literary luncheon in 1989.
Firstly he died in May 1988 and to the best of my knowledge he never left the Soviet Union after he defected there in 1962.

And of course Jeff, and others are quite right. What I should have said was that the first author guest was Philip Knightly the author who wrote on Kim Philby KGB Masterspy and also authored many other distinguished books.

1 comment:

Lee said...

The New Zealand connection is evident in his Isabel Dalhousie novels, with many references to the country. Always gives me a little buzz seeing that Z.