Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Sunday Philosophy Club

by Alexander McCall Smith

You know what, in spite of the climate, I wouldn’t mind living in Edinburgh. Provided somebody gives me a house like Isabel Dalhousie’s. Or lets me live in one, free of charge. (Yes, dear reader, I mean somebody. Why not you?) I can edit an academic journal, part-time of course. Something like Annals of Chemical Nomenclature or The Scottish Bassist Review will do. It will be great, I promise. Now where were we? I just told you: in Edinburgh.

Isabel Dalhousie is also a detective, albeit an amateur one. She is not as brilliant as Mma Ramotswe, but she solves the mystery eventually, probably not quite in a way she you  I  would like it to be solved. The main problem of The Sunday Philosophy Club, however, is the lack of convincing characters. Which is a shame. Also, the eponymous enterprise is mentioned a few times but ‘is not exactly very active’, mainly because people have other things to do on Sundays.

Another of McCall Smith’s creations, The Really Terrible Orchestra, perhaps with the author himself somewhere in the woodwind section, makes brief but impressive appearance in Chapter 19. I thought this was the best part of the whole book.

The players, seated in the auditorium of St. George’s School for Girls, which patiently hosted the Really Terrible Orchestra, were tackling a score beyond their capabilities; Purcell had not intended this, and would probably not have recognised his composition. It was slightly familiar to Isabel — or passages of it were — but it seemed to her that different sections of the orchestra were playing quite different pieces, and in different times. The strings were particularly ragged, and sounded several tones flat, while the trombones, which should have been in six-eight time, like the rest of the orchestra, seemed to be playing in common time. She opened her eyes and looked at the trombonists, who were concentrating on their music with worried frowns; had they looked at the conductor they would have been set right, but the task of reading the notes was all they could manage. Isabel exchanged smiles with the person in the seat beside her; the audience was enjoying itself, as it always did at a Really Terrible Orchestra concert.
The Purcell came to an end, to the evident relief of the orchestra, with many of the members lowering their instruments and taking a deep breath, as runners do at the end of a race. There was muted laughter amongst the audience, and the rustle of paper as they consulted the programme. Mozart lay ahead, and, curiously, ‘Yellow Submarine’. There was no Stockhausen, Isabel noticed with relief, remembering, for a moment, and with sadness, that evening at the Usher Hall, which was why she was here, after all, listening to the Really Terrible Orchestra labouring its way through its programme before its bemused but loyal audience.
There was rapturous applause at the end of the concert, and the conductor, in his gold braid waistcoat, took several bows. Then audience and players went through to the atrium for the wine and sandwiches that the orchestra provided its listeners in return for attendance at the concert.
‘It’s the least we can do,’ explained the conductor in his concluding remarks. ‘You have been so tolerant.’
Isabel knew a number of the players and many of those in the audience, and she soon found herself in a group of friends hovering over a large plate of smoked salmon sandwiches.
‘I thought they were improving,’ said one, ‘but I’m not so sure after this evening. The Mozart . . .’
‘So that’s what it was.’

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