Newlywed painter and sometime somnambulist Angus Lordie might be sleepwalking his way into trouble with Animal Welfare when he lets his dog Cyril drink a bit too much lager at the local bar. The longsuffering Bertie, on the cusp of his seventh birthday party, has taken to dreaming about his eighteenth, a time when he will be able to avoid the indignity of unwanted girl attendees and the looming threat of a gender-neutral doll from his domineering mother Irene. Matthew and Elspeth struggle to care for their triplets, contending with Danish au pairs and dubious dukes to boot, while the narcissistic Bruce faces his greatest challenge yet in the form of an over-eager waxologist. As ever, when Alexander McCall Smith visits 44 Scotland Street, fun is sure to follow.
About the Author
Date of Birth:August 24, 1948
Place of Birth:Zimbabwe
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1. Knives and Chromosomes
Bertie Pollock (6) was the son of Irene Pollock (37) and Stuart Pollock (40), and older brother of Ulysses Colquhoun Pollock (1). Ulysses was also the son of Irene but possibly not of Stuart, the small boy bearing a remarkable resemblance to Bertie’s psychotherapist, recently self-removed from Edinburgh to a university chair in Aberdeen. Stuart, too, had been promoted, having recently been moved up three rungs on the civil service ladder after incurring the gratitude of a government minister. This had happened after Stuart, in a moment of sheer frustration, had submitted the numbers from The Scotsman’s Sudoku puzzle to the minister, representing them as likely North Sea oil production volumes. He had immediately felt guilty about this adolescent gesture—homo ludens, playful man, might be appreciated in the arts but not in the civil service—and had he been able to retract the figures he would have done so. But it was too late; the minister was delighted with the encouraging projection, with the result that any confession by Stuart would have been a career-terminating event. So he remained silent, and was immensely relieved to discover later that the real figures, once unearthed, were so close to his Sudoku numbers as to make no difference. His conscience was saved by coincidence, but never again, he said to himself.
Irene had no interest in statistics and always adopted a glazed expression at any mention of the subject. “I can accept that what you do is very important, Stuart,” she said, in a pinched, rather pained tone, “but frankly it leaves me cold. No offence, of course.”
Her own interests were focused on psychology—she had a keen interest in the writings of Melanie Klein—and the raising of children. Bertie’s education, in particular, was a matter of great concern to her, and she had already written an article for the journal Progressive Motherhood, in which she had set out the objectives of what she described as “the Bertie Project.”
“The emphasis,” she wrote, “must always be on the flourishing of the child’s own personality. Yet this overriding goal is not incompatible with the provision of a programme of interest-enhancement in the child herself” (Irene was not one to use the male pronoun when a feminine form existed). “In the case of Bertie, I constructed a broad and fulfilling programme of intellectual stimulation introducing him at a very early stage (four months) to the possibilities of theatre, music and the plastic arts. The inability of the very small infant to articulate a response to the theatre, for example, is not an indication of lack of appreciation—far from it, in fact. Bertie was at the age of four months taken to a performance by the Contemporary Theatre of Krakow at the Edinburgh Festival and reacted very positively to the rapid changes of light on the stage. There are many other examples. His response to Klee, for instance, was noticeable when he was barely three, and by the age of four he was quite capable of distinguishing Peploe from Matisse.”
Some of these claims had some truth to them. Bertie was, in fact, extremely talented, and had read way beyond what one might expect to find in a six-year-old. Most six-year-olds, if they can read at all, are restricted to the doings of Spot the Dog and other relatively unsubtle characters; Bertie, by contrast, had already consumed not only the complete works of Roald Dahl for children, but also half of Norman Lebrecht’s book on Mahler and almost seventy pages of Miranda Carter’s biography of the late Anthony Blunt. His choice of this reading, which was prodigious on any view, was dependent on what he happened to find lying about on his parents’ bookshelves, and this was, of course, the reason why he had also dipped into several volumes of Melanie Klein and was acquainted too with a number of Freud’s accounts of his famous cases, especially those of Little Hans and the Wolf Man.
Little Hans struck Bertie as being an entirely reasonable boy, who had just as little need of analysis as he himself had.
“I think Dr. Freud shouldn’t have worried about that boy Hans,” Bertie remarked to his mother, as they made their way one afternoon to the consulting rooms of Bertie’s psychotherapist in Queen Street. “I don’t think there was anything wrong with him, Mummy, I really don’t.”
“That’s a matter of opinion, Bertie,” answered Irene. “And actually it’s Professor Freud, not Dr. Freud.”
“Well,” said Bertie. “Professor Freud then. Why does he keep going on about . . .” He lowered his voice, and then became silent.
“About what, Bertie?” asked Irene. “What do you think Professor Freud goes on about?”
Bertie slowed his pace. He was looking down at the ground with studious intensity. “About bo . . .” he half-whispered. Modesty prevented his completing the sentence.
“About what, Bertie?” prompted Irene. “We mustn’t mumble, carissimo. We must speak clearly so that others can understand what we have to say.”
Bertie looked anxiously about him. He decided to change the subject. “What about my birthday, Mummy?” he said.
Irene looked down at her son. “Yes, it’s coming up very soon, Bertie. Next week, in fact. Are you excited?”
Bertie nodded. He had waited so long for this birthday—his seventh—that he found it difficult to believe that it was now about to arrive. It seemed to him that it had been years since the last one, and he had almost given up on the thought of turning seven, let alone eighteen, which he knew was the age at which one could leave one’s mother. That was the real goal—a distant, impossibly exciting, shimmering objective. Freedom.
“Will I get any presents?” he asked.
Irene smiled. “Of course you will, Bertie.”
“I’d like a Swiss Army penknife,” he half-whispered. “Or a fishing rod.”
Irene said nothing.
“Other boys have these things,” Bertie pleaded.
Irene pursed her lips. “Other boys? Do you mean Tofu?”
Bertie nodded miserably.
“Well the less said about him the better,” said Irene. She sighed. Why did men—and little boys too—have to hanker after weapons when they already had their . . . She shook her head in exasperation. What was the point of all this effort if, after years of striving to protect Bertie from gender stereotypes, he came up with a request for a knife? It was a question of the number of chromosomes, she thought: therein lay the core of the problem.
2. Essex Girls et al
From Bertie’s point of view his approaching birthday was the cause of immense excitement. Not only was there the issue of presents—although he was virtually reconciled to not getting what he wanted, as his mother had on previous birthdays always been careful to choose gender-neutral gifts—there was also the question of the party Irene had promised him. This was something to which Bertie looked forward with keen anticipation, although he knew that here, too, there would be snares and pitfalls that would require very careful evasive action on his part.
The greatest problem, of course, was the list of those to be invited. If Bertie had his way, the guests would all be boys, as that would mean that they would be able to play the games they wanted without having to take into account the wishes of any girls. Bertie had once been to a party where the guests had played British Bulldog, and he had enjoyed that every bit as much as that other game of rough and tumble, Chase the Dentist. Girls, he had learned, liked neither of these games, on the grounds that the boys, being rougher and more inclined to push and shove, had a natural advantage over them.
But the list, he knew, could not be an all-boy one, as Irene had made it very clear that she expected an equal number of boy and girl guests.
“There are plenty of nice girls who’d love to come to your party, Bertie,” she assured him. “There’s Olive, obviously, and Olive’s friend Pansy. Then there’s that pleasant girl Chardonnay, although heaven knows why her parents should saddle her with such a name . . .”
“It sounds rather nice,” said Bertie. “I think she likes it. And she’s got a little sister called Shiraz. That’s a nice name too, I think.”
Irene rolled her eyes upwards. “Such names are . . . well, they’re rather closely linked with . . . well, Bertie, I’m sorry to say they are rather closely associated with Essex.”
“Essex?” said Bertie. “Isn’t Essex a place in England, Mummy?”
“Yes it is,” said Irene. “Unfortunately.”
“What do you mean, Mummy? Are there lots of girls called Chardonnay in Essex, but not in Edinburgh?”
Irene suppressed a smile. “You could say that, Bertie. Chardonnay is not really an Edinburgh name. But Essex, you see, is a bit . . . It’s a bit . . . well, let’s not worry about Essex, Bertie. Chardonnay can’t help her unfortunate name, and I’m sure that she’ll love to come to your party.”
“And there’ll be boys too,” said Bertie quickly.
Irene nodded. “I’m sure that Ranald will be very happy to come.”
Irene made a non-committal noise. “I thought you found Tofu a bit difficult, Bertie.”
Bertie nodded. “Yes, he is, Mummy. But I have to invite him. He’d hear about the party and if I didn’t invite him, there’d be trouble.”
The conversation about guests continued for some time, but Bertie’s mind was not really on it. He was now remembering the party he had attended several weeks earlier, which had been to celebrate Olive’s seventh birthday. Bertie had been reluctant to go to this but had been obliged by his mother to accept the invitation. “You’ll enjoy yourself once you’re there, Bertie,” she had said. “I often find that myself when Mummy and Daddy have to go out. We may not be in the mood to begin with, but then we find that we enjoy ourselves quite a lot once we’re there. Daddy often finds that.”
Bertie thought about this. “Is that because he gets drunk, Mummy?”
Irene looked shocked. “Bertie, you mustn’t say things like that. Daddy doesn’t get drunk at cocktail parties. Anyway, the point is this: you’ll enjoy Olive’s party once you’re there—you mark my words.”
Bertie did not enjoy himself. When he arrived at Olive’s house in the Braids, his heart sank as he saw the cluster of pink balloons tied to the gatepost at the end of the short drive. And it sank even further when he realised that of the twelve guests invited by Olive, he was the only boy.
“Isn’t Ranald coming?” he asked Olive as he handed over her present.
“Certainly not,” said Olive. “Ranald Braveheart Macpherson has not been invited to my house and never will be, with those stupid thin legs of his! No, Bertie, you are the only boy who is privileged to join us today, and you should be jolly grateful for that.”
“Yes,” said Pansy, shaking her finger at him. “You should know just how lucky you are, Bertie.”
Bertie did not argue. He was outnumbered in every way, and he had long ago learned that arguing with Olive got one nowhere. So he busied himself with a sausage roll and a slice of pizza and waited for events to take their natural course.
After tea, Olive had clapped her hands and announced that it was time for games. “We’re going to play a game now,” she said. “A really good one.”
“Houses?” asked Pansy. “Could we play houses, Olive?”
Olive appeared to give this request full consideration before she shook her head. “No, we shall not play houses, Pansy. Houses is a very yesterday game. We’re going to play Jane Austen!”
There were squeals of pleasure and excitement from several of the girls. “Yes!” enthused Pansy. “Jane Austen!” And then she asked, “How do you play that?”
“I’m going to be Lizzie,” said Olive. “She’s a girl with lots of sisters. Pansy, you can be her Mummy, who is very stupid, and Lakshmi, you can be her sister Jane. And Bertie . . .”
Bertie looked away. It was only three o’clock and the party was due to go on until five. Two hours of Jane Austen stretched ahead of him.
“And you, Bertie,” said Olive decisively, “you can be Mr. Darcy.”
“How do I do that?” whispered Bertie. “I don’t know how to play Jane Austen, Olive.”
“You just stand there and be handsome,” said Olive. “That’s all you have to do. And when one of the sisters asks you to dance, then you have to bow and say, ‘Madam, I would be most honoured, truly I would.’ That’s all. You don’t have to say anything else.”
“How long do I have to do that for?” asked Bertie.
“An hour or so,” said Olive. “Then we’re going to play another game. Royal Weddings!”
There were further squeals of excitement, but from Bertie there came only a sigh. Royal Weddings, he felt, was a game that adults played—not children.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers is the ninth book in the popular 44 Scotland Street series by British author, Alexander McCall Smith. Now almost seven, Bertie Pollock feels like it is years since his last birthday (and readers of this series may well agree, considering The Importance of Being Seven was three books ago). Freedom, for Bertie, is represented by turning eighteen and heading for Glasgow, far from Irene, his domineering mother’s control, far from his therapist, Italian lessons, Yoga for Tots, gender-neutral birthday presents and saxophone practice. The likeability of Irene and her husband Stuart appear to be progressing in inverse proportion, so it is no surprise that Stuart, Bertie and even baby Ulysses enthusiastically encourage Irene to accept a free trip to Dubai. A trip that does not go quite the way Irene expects. The irony of Irene’s ultimate situation is quite delightful. Domenica and Angus are settling into married life: Angus counts his blessings, even if Domenica has discovered behaviour that leads to the slightly alarming prospect of his seeing a psychiatrist. Their ex-neighbour, Antonia, on a visit from Tuscany with the saintly Sister Maria-Fiore dei Fiori di Montagna, (a mistress of the arresting aphorism), utters authoritatively on auras and haloes. The concept of Cyril’s vocabulary is examined and someone gets him drunk. Big Lou makes a major change in her life; Pat Macgregor experiences love at first sight, followed by dislike at first sight; and that well-known narcissist, Bruce experiences a waxing mishap in the pursuit of physical perfection. Matthew and Elspeth, feeling the stress of parenting triplets, engage an au pair for their au pair, a strident your Danish lass with solid opinions. In Irene’s absence, Bertie (definitely the star of this series) gets to eat pizza and manages to go on a longed-for scout camp, where he comforts a fearful friend and has a quite unexpected adventure. As usual, McCall Smith’s characters share their succinct, insightful and often amusing observations on human behaviour: the rituals we perform to placate the gods; driver aggression; the challenges faced by Scottish nudists. The formula for the value of the pound at different ages is explained, reincarnation and the concept of Karma is explored, the proportions of beauty are mused upon, the obstacles to men having female friends are delved into and Ian Rankin makes a cameo appearance. Animal welfare, nasal hair, sympathetic architecture, Marmite, dessert and desert, original sin and the over-analysis of children’s literature all feature. There are many laugh-out-loud moments, and the delightful text is complemented with charming illustrations by Iain McIntosh. As always, the novel ends with a gathering at Domenica’s (and Angus’s): Angus marks the occasion of Bertie’s seventh birthday with a stirring poem. Hilarious in parts, this instalment of the lives of our favourite Edinburgh residents is a wonderful read, as always.
Fans of 44 Scottland Street will not be dissappointed.
Alexander McCall smith is such an enjoyable author. I love reading his works when I am feeling a little down,
If you would like to read a light-hearted novel, choose this one and enjoy little Bernie's imaginative views of his controlling mother.