An Autumn Tour with Alexander McCall Smith: Part One!

  17 Oct '22   |  Posted by: Birlinn

Last week, Alexander McCall Smith (or Sandy) enjoyed his first major October Tour in the UK since Covid restrictions lifted.

He flew with his publicist, Jan Rutherford (that’s me), from Edinburgh down to Bristol and then a car over to Yeovil in Somerset for the first event of the week at the literary festival there. The trees were turning and it was much colder than of late.

I’m in a privileged position, working with Sandy not only for Polygon at Birlinn but with Little,Brown in London too. It is extremely rare for two publishers to work so closely together. Even more so as this relationship has lasted for over 20 years. Polygon books therefor sat side by side with those of Little,Brown on this tour, FIVE new hardback books and a sea of paperbacks!

A superb team took care of Sandy extremely well in Yeovil, from the organisers of the festival to the interlocutor, Jenny Devitt. And, of course, the professional Waterstones team of booksellers handling a very large number of booksales.

October Tour: A new bookshop in Bath

From there we travelled to Bath by train, for an evening event in the new Topping bookshop. If you are visiting the stunning city of Bath, make a beeline for this shop with its wooden floor-to-high-ceiling bookcases complete with rolling library ladders – and a gallery with even more shelves running round three sides of the building. It proudly claims more bookshelf space than any other British indie bookshop (rivalled possibly by its sister shop in Edinburgh) and sits next to Bath Abbey. In fact, as Sandy read from his new titles, you could hear the bells of the Abbey in the background. It was a beautiful and moving experience.

Originally a Quaker Meeting House, this grand building makes the perfect bookshop. Here we were in the safe hands of Saber Khan, Director of Books – what would you give for that job title? – who worked his way round the FIVE new hardback books. Yes FIVE: A Song of Comfortable Chairs – the latest in the No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series; The Exquisite Art of Getting Even – a new short story collection; Sweet Remnants of Summer – in the Isabel Dalhousie series; In a Time of Distance – a poetry collection; and finally, very much hot of the press, the first copies of The Enigma of Garlic – Scotland Street.

He stayed just round the corner from the bookshop in the independent town-house, Eight Hotel, on historic North Parade, just moments away from the shop – in fact stacks of books could be glimpsed through the windows of the shop from the hotel.

Morning brought a quiet dining area as the manager was helping her 94 year old neighbour who had fallen in the cold weather. But the breakfast chef took everything in his stride and was a delight as he brought a cracking breakfast of smoked salmon and scrambled egg.

October Tour: On to Cheltenham

Onwards. A train took us on to Cheltenham, and the literary festival there. A late afternoon event was chaired by the excellent Tim Hubbard who took the array of books in his professional stride. Together he and Sandy brought great cheer to a tented theatre, packed with readers. Not a seat to spare. And the signing queue! Not just the length, not just the number of books that people were buying, but the joyous and often moving conversations… it is so good to be back amongst friends.

As we headed off for a train into London, Tim went in search of his next on stage partner, award-winning judge of BBC’s Strictly, Anton du Beke.

The legendary Jo James has worked her magic at Cheltenham. The book festival has claimed Montpellier Gardens in the heart of the town as its own. The team care about their visiting writers and look after them well. But they care too about the readers – good theatres, professional sound and lighting engineers, great location, fabulous and well stocked shop run by Waterstones, additional offerings of food and drink and a craft tent. It is, without doubt, one of the finest book festivals in the country.

A quick phone call with tomorrow’s in-conversation partner and we are off to the station, waiting for a train into central London (and a supper of Pork Pies from Huffkins Bakery!). Sandy heads for a well-earned night’s rest in one part of London and I to a hotel in another. It’s after 10pm and we’ve been on the go since breakfast.

And to London city

Wednesday is another early start for a day of writing, meetings and interviews in central London before Sandy’s annual event in Daunt books in Marylebone High Street in the event. This is a stunning bookshop – staffed by just the nicest team. The shop was packed, the conversation flowed, wine was poured – it was great to be back. Look at the window display! Then round the corner for a dinner with bookseller and publishing friends.

On Thursday, we parted ways and a colleague took over for the final days of this October tour. I headed north to Edinburgh on the early train, while Sandy and Ellen headed to Letchworth and Lincoln on Thursday, Durham on Friday and then finally, Corbridge and then Berwick on Saturday, arriving home safe and sound around 10.30pm.

More to follow!

Jan Rutherford, Oct 2022

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