Mary Wakefield Mary Wakefield

The heart of lightness

Alexander McCall Smith counts Donald Rumsfeld and The Red Hot Chili Peppers among his fans, and has a very cool cat. Mary Wakefield talks to him about Africa and ‘reality’

Alexander McCall Smith counts Donald Rumsfeld and The Red Hot Chili Peppers among his fans, and has a very cool cat. Mary Wakefield talks to him about Africa and ‘reality’

Alexander McCall Smith wants to show me his cat. ‘I think he’s asleep in the spare bedroom,’ says Edna, his cleaning lady, putting down a mug of coffee. ‘I’ll go and get him.’

‘No, no, no!’ McCall Smith leaps into the hallway ahead of her. For a big man, he is surprisingly light on his feet. ‘He’ll come, he will! He’ll come if I call him.’

His teenage daughter appears in the study doorway. Edna looks out from the kitchen. I find myself holding on to a small wooden pig carved into the banister rail. Centre stage stands McCall Smith, feet together, arms at his sides. He lifts his chin and pauses, then lets out a mellifluous yodel: ‘GordyGordyGordyGordy.’ Silence. We stare hopefully at the stairs leading down from the spare bedroom. Again: ‘GordyGordyGordy!’

Suddenly a thin brown cat streaks down the stairs towards McCall Smith’s cream-suited trouser leg. He bends down to stroke it, then looks up at me. ‘Would you like to see “long-cat”?’ My grip on the pig tightens. ‘Do long-cat, Gordy, do long-cat!’ In response, Gordon the cat stretches out his legs stiffly in front of him like a little cat rocking-horse, and with a modest smile McCall Smith lifts him triumphantly up above his head, holding the cat aloft like a voodoo priest might a snake.

Eventually, when the surreal feeling wears off, one of deep admiration takes its place. Alexander ‘Sandy’ McCall Smith has written more than 50 books, from The Perfect Hamburger (for children) to The Forensic Aspects of Sleep. Aged 55, he has become a literary superstar with fans worldwide keening for the next in his series about the No.

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