“Did you see that survey published in the papers the other day where people were asked if they believed Winston Churchill ever existed? A quarter of them said they thought he was mystical.”
At what fateful sigh of time does history seamlessly transform into myth? At what point do harrowing mass bloodbaths become delightfully spooky tales by the crackling fireplace? Those grand, bushy-bearded kings of old, when do they slip into irrelevance? When does the sacred Stone of Destiny, the hallowed instrument of coronation, become just a minimally polished bit of rock? The Unberable Lightness of Scones (yes, pun intended) by a comfortably popular Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith, does not attempt to answer these largely rhetorical questions of collective national mind. This is, after all, meant to be an easy, jolly read, with obvious hat tips to P.D. Wodehouse and David Lodge. Furthermore, this wee gem is part of a series about daily lives and pedestrian dramas of inhabitants at 44 Scotland Street (a real street, by the way, a very typical, quiet, residential nest in New Town). Still, as readers are taken out for a fun stroll along those unmistakeable Edinbughian streets of fog and stone, they are invited to ponder, through personal journeys of a dozen characters, the fate and future of this royal city in the 21st century.
After all, every city and nation must bow to time. Even a place as enviably strong, creative, and rebellious as the stone pearl that is Edinburgh. A cradle of Scottish Enlightenment in tow with David Hume, Adam Smith and its own vibrant literary Pleiad (Burns, Stevenson, Scott), it is not sheltered from the winds of Zeitgeist. Work, leisure, food, relationships, blood, belonging, identity, all gets a good toss. Even Boy Scouts are not entirely without sin, as six-year old Bertie discovers, chaperoned by an overbearingly progressive mum in between psychotherapy sessions and yoga classes.
Speaking of classes, the novel is a clearly bourgeois milieu, populated by gallery curators, teachers, artists, designers, restorateurs, and aspiring models. They go to Australia for their honeymoons and misplace their fancy Blue Spode cups, yet not all is sedentary in this quiet swamp. These bougies try to stir their snug little teapot by engaging in contraband of illicit jam, choosing love over money, and even aiding the descendant of the Young Pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie reclaim his centuries-lost birthright to the Scottish throne. The folks of Scotland Street, through their amusing peregrinations, unwittingly labour on redefining their beautiful city as it gracefully endures into another century, weathered and wisened by all that passed before, from bloody Jacobite rebellions to the dark pleasure of the kind of life depicted in Trainspotting.
The Unbearable Lightness of Scones went to print in 2008, when the world was just entering the feverish pain of the financial crisis. That was a globally shared misfortune though, quite unlike the deeply national challenge thrown by the chaos of Brexit. The latter, still ongoing, made a careless tear in the patchwork of national identity, British, English, Scottish… Voices, questions, doubts, and long dormant anger are now reopening wounds, pustules, and callouses. A referendum can be a cornucopia of fury, hope, hate, disappointment, joy, ugliness, progress, regress, and a whole lot of confusion in between. It can also be a dud, a deflated balloon, a false alarm. Millions are raising their hearts to the stars to ask: “What makes us us? What makes this place ours and us of this place? Is it mountains and heather, castles and Robbie Burns, hearty curry with your Polish neighbours, or simply the zesty chill of Edinburgh air?”
In the Unbearable Lightness of Scones the remedy against tough times is simple – a lovely dinner with the neighbours, a no-nonsense menu, some flirts and giggles, and a cheesy poem-toast for a finale:
“I love this country, for all its ways,
I am as moved as any when I see
That landscape of quiet glens,
Those pure burns and rivers,
Those blue seas and islands
Half blue. I love all that,
And the people who dwell therein;
But I love, too, our neighbours
And those who are not our neighbours,
I shall never relish their defeats,
Not celebrate their human difficulties;
For, frankly, what is the alternative?
I see no other way.
I see no other way but that;
I see no other way but love.”
Love thy neighbour. Make them dinner. Fix the world. Sláinte!
Image: Leamne Arias Deniz, “Edinburgh.”