Commonplace Book: Alexander McCall Smith

What_W__H__Auden_Can_Do_for_You__Writers_on_Writers__by_Alexander_Mccall_Smith_-_Powell_s_BooksReading another in the category of those “What X Can Do For You…“, “How Y Can Change Your Life” books, but (somewhat atypically) finding it an engaging one, courtesy of Alexander McCall Smith of the gentle No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency mysteries, and other books (including Portuguese Irregular Verbs and The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs).

What Auden Can Do For You is his encomium to the British poet, not to me a likely choice for this self-help treatment, but Smith’s take is mostly personal, which redeems it. Here he is describing a talk he gave at a library in Perthshire, Scotland, an incident he recalls as a way of introducing his discussion of Auden’s “A Summer Day.”

It [Highland Scotland] was a place of strong religious views. The Scottish Reformation was late but had been passionate and had brought with it a commitment to setting up a school in every parish. What later came to be seen as a strong Scottish commitment to education had its roots in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Books were the instruments of truth. Books were the means by which the poor could free themselves of what Auden once described as “the suffering to which they are fairly accustomed.” This attitude towards books has stubbornly survived in Scotland, mirroring, perhaps, the Irish attitude to music: both are consolations that will, in their individual way, always see one through.

My talk was preceded by a reception. This was held outside the converted ancient church that the library used for its meetings. A couple of open-sided tents had been erected under which drinks and snacks were prepared, and people milled about, chatting in the benign evening sunlight. In a country such as Scotland, where raw Atlantic weather blows over the land with little regard to season, a sunlit evening in which the air is still lifts the spirits. This lightening was very much in evidence in the atmosphere of the gathering: it seemed as if everybody present was an old friend, seizing the chance to catch up with one another.

I then experienced a feeling of extraordinary calm, of something that must have been joy. It was fleeting, lasting only for a minute or two, but it was unmistakable. We all have such moments in our lives, and there is no telling when they will occur. For a short time we are somehow transported into another form of consciousness, until it comes to an end: we are distracted; somebody says something, a visitor comes to the door (as happened to Coleridge, when that “person from Porlock” interrupted the writing of his visionary poem “Kubla Kahn”)–and the insight evaporates. But we know that for a short time we have seen something about the world that we do not normally see. I suddenly understood that I loved the people present in that small enclosure. I had come from Edinburgh feeling that the evening would be a chore, and now I stood on the grass and realized how grudging, how churlish that attitude had been.

“A summer night,” I said to myself.

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