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3 February 2021

Alexander McCall Smith’s Diary: Boris Johnson’s Scotland visit, and the problem with cats

I don't know if the Prime Minister has read the 14th-century Declaration of Arbroath recently. If so, he may feel daunted about finding a simple solution to the national question. 

By Alexander McCall Smith

For most of us the boundaries of our world have become synonymous with those of our immediate neighbourhood. If you live in Edinburgh, that is less constraining than one might imagine, as it has still been possible to take exercise within a fairly generously-drawn circle, that includes at least the northern slopes of the Pentland Hills. And there, thanks to heavy snowfall, we have been able to hike in snowshoes across pristine white fields, or follow high ridges affording magnificent views past the crouching lion that is Arthur’s Seat, over the cold blue waters of the Forth, to the hills of Fife and beyond. Looking down over Edinburgh like that, one cannot be anything but aware that this is a very special place, the beguilingly beautiful capital of an ancient nation. It is a city that in the last couple of decades has woken up again – it is not going back to the relatively somnolent state in which it spent the 19th and early 20th century. Whatever views one might hold on the constitutional question – and people should be able to disagree with one another, courteously, on that issue – Edinburgh is alive again, an intellectual, financial and cultural capital that is increasingly keen to redefine its position.


Johnson’s grand day out

I am not sure whether Boris Johnson has read the text of the 14th-century Declaration of Arbroath recently. If he has, he might be feeling somewhat daunted over the prospect of any simple solution to the national question. He did, of course, visit Scotland at the end of January, on a trip many considered a breach of current regulations. Not everybody felt that way, and it does seem reasonable to assert that the Prime Minister should be entitled to set foot in any part of the country in the course of an official visit. But it is common knowledge that Mr Johnson is not overly popular in Scotland – including among certain senior Scottish Conservatives. Scotland is a hospitable country, however, and it would be interesting to know whether Mr Johnson received the same generous reception at the table as did Dr Johnson and Mr Boswell on an earlier visit.

[see also: Why Boris Johson’s bag of gold may not prevent Scottish independence]

Edinburgh’s common good

I was dismayed to hear of new steps to interest developers in one of Edinburgh’s most significant buildings, the old Royal High School. This is a magnificent 19th-century neoclassical creation slap-bang in the middle of our Unesco World Heritage Site. A proposal to turn the school into a large hotel met with prolonged opposition from every conservation body in town, and was eventually seen off. In its place, a scheme to adapt the building to provide a home for Scotland’s principal music school, St Mary’s, attracted overwhelming public support.

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Great public buildings should not be put on the auction block. They are the family silver. If an important public purpose can be found for them, then that is what they should, if at all possible, be used for. Unfortunately, there are interests in Edinburgh determined to pursue the Disneyfication of the city for commercial gain. But its citizens, having grumbled for years that Edinburgh has been covered with hotels and besieged by constant festivals, have had enough. Give us back our city, they say. Make it possible for people of modest means to live and work here, as they always have.


The feline fallacy

There has been a spate of recent books (two) on what philosophical lessons we can learn from animals. Both have been on my bedside table. One of these has been an elegant essay, translated from the original French, on the philosophy of birds; the other has been Feline Philosophy by this magazine’s own John Gray, always an interesting writer. Cat lovers should avoid reading the rest of this sentence: cats are 84-horse- power, six-cylinder psychopaths. I am inclined to disagree with some of Gray’s arguments, witty and challenging though they are. Cats can teach us nothing, other than to be selfish and lie about on warm chairs. They have no idea of loyalty or constancy. Most domestic cats would gladly eat us if they were a bit bigger. Yet I must say that I like them – they are, I suppose, very agreeable bad company.

As for the birds, they are a very unpleasant bunch, always squabbling and bullying one another. Quite unlike humans. Having said that, I am out in the garden every morning distributing largesse: dried mealworms, much appreciated by blackbirds; grains, beloved of a flock of ten wood pigeons; and little pieces of compressed suet, prized by smaller, lesser birds of uncertain identity but no doubt considerable philosophical significance.

[see also: What the cat knows]

Singing grace

I am working, as librettist, with the composer Thomas Hyde on an opera about the disappearance of Lord Lucan. I had completed the libretto, but Tom asked me to add a grace to a dinner party scene that takes place in the home of a psychoanalyst. The requirement, then, was for a Freudian prayer. Initially, I thought, this would be rather difficult to do, but then it suddenly came to me. Here it is, and I am happy for it to be put to pre-prandial use by any Freudians reading this diary. When Tom’s score becomes available, you will even be able to sing it:

The food we do before us find
Is product of both hand and mind,
Every dish to grace our table
Comes replete with ancient fable,
What it means to give another
The recipes we learned from Mother!
Bless this bread and bless this salt,
Bless guilt, regret, and childhood fault,
Enable us to recite the menu
Even as we leave the venue
Of things forgotten, nameless fears,
Anxieties, indigestion, the welcome tears
Vienna banishes; Benedictus benedicat,
I say amen, and add to that:
In the name of id and that of ego,
Super-ego and libido.

Alexander McCall Smith’s most recent novel is “A Promise of Ankles” (Little, Brown)

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This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy