Of the remarkable children in literature intended for adults, one of the most memorable is Bertie Pollock. This extraordinarily intelligent and observant little boy appears in Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series, set in the celebrated author’s home city of Edinburgh. In each of the ten novels Bertie learns a great deal about life, since his growing up is of major interest to McCall Smith.
In Number 9, Bertie’s Guide to Life and Mothers, Smith’s young protagonist is about to have a party celebrating his seventh birthday. Against his wishes his extremely bossy and irritating mother, Irene, invites girls as well as boys. Also against his wishes an infuriating, mendacious neighbourhood ruffian,Tofu, who ‘must’ be invited to avoid major trouble, insists on bringing with him two horrible companions. One habitually picks fights with others, and the second is a thief. Irene and her amiable but ineffectual husband Stuart do nothing in advance to prevent this from happening.
Indeed, as if the activities favoured by normal boys do not exist, Irene forces Bertie to study Italian, take saxophone lessons, and see a psychotherapist whose ears and forehead strongly resemble those of his younger brother Ulysses. Only when she is captured by natives in an overseas desert while wearing a traditional outfit hiding her features does her ‘gender-neutral project’ for her oldest son languish completely.
Happily for Bertie, his birthday party goes ahead in ways called ‘out of the question’ by his absent mother. In an attractive local park a group of lively boys play harmless racing and hurling games. Instead of being forced to eat ‘healthy’ food like carrots, they have sausages, haggis, quantities of smoked salmon, ice cream and cake. Only silly children overeat and get sick. Everybody else, including Stuart and two girls in Bertie’s class permitted to observe the goings-on, has a ball.
Readers who begin with the first novel in the series and continue avidly with its successors see straight away that Bertie is not a paragon of virtue, good-natured and sensitive though he happens to be. On a regular basis he makes as many instructive errors as other children and adults. Unlike the wilful narcissists in his vicinity, he profits from egregious blunders—for instance, getting lost on an unfamiliar street—by not repeating them. And, best of all, he resists pressures applied by children who resemble Irene: especially a disagreeably self-important child name Olive, whose insistence on their eventual marriage is countermanded by him in very few words.
In the last book so far available in the series, The Revolving Door of Life, Bertie’s growing up difficulties are in one obvious respect less arduous: Irene is still away, and there is no sign that she is likely to come back in the near future. To the amazement of adults, especially Stuart’s mother Nicola, who minds the house while Irene is held in a harem by a sheik, he unselfconsciously displays knowledge normally found in highly educated adults.
Since Bertie reads voluminously, picking up magazines scattered in the house and going through books in his parents’ shelves that many grown-ups never even sight, he sometimes corrects factual errors made by Nicola and others. In ordinary conversation, drawing on this reading, he displays forms of knowledge that dramatise an understanding rarely found in children of his age. One example is an observation made by him about the first suits of armour worn in battle. From time spent locally he becomes equally comfortable at recognising items sold by fashionable delicatessens and cake shops—for instance, panettone.
Here is this prodigious youngster in his own voice at the end of The World According to Bertie:
I think the world is nice. I think that it is very sad that there are people who are unkind to one another. . . . Miss Harmony was a very kind teacher. We all loved her and she was very kind to us. I hope that wherever she is she is happy. I want her to come back though. I want things to be the same again and for everybody to be happy. That is what I want.
Because many of the adults in Bertie’s world have a much more pessimistic view of life than he does, concentrating in their usual remarks on the daily horrors visible around the globe, his habitual remarks are endlessly refreshing. Indeed, they dramatise in McCall Smith himself a habitually delightful sense of wonder inseparable from a profoundly rendered grasp of ordinary human limitation.
This reflection is the fifth in a series about Growing Up that describes fiction from different parts of the world. For most of her life, starting in Year 3, Susan Reibel Moore has taught Reading, Writing and literature.