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Authors: Alexander Mccall Smith

The Charming Quirks of Others


The Sunday Philosophy Club
Friends, Lovers, Chocolate
The Right Attitude to Rain
The Careful Use of Compliments
The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday
The Lost Art of Gratitude
The Charming Quirks of Others

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
Tears of the Giraffe
Morality for Beautiful Girls
The Kalahari Typing School for Men
The Full Cupboard of Life
In the Company of Cheerful Ladies
Blue Shoes and Happiness
The Good Husband of Zebra Drive
The Miracle at Speedy Motors
Tea Time for the Traditionally Built
The Double Comfort Safari Club

Portuguese Irregular Verbs
The Finer Points of Sausage Dogs
At the Villa of Reduced Circumstances

44 Scotland Street
Espresso Tales
Love over Scotland
The World According to Bertie
The Unbearable Lightness of Scones

The Girl Who Married a Lion and Other Tales from Africa
La’s Orchestra Saves the World
Corduroy Mansions

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2010 by Alexander McCall Smith

All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by Little, Brown, an imprint of the Little, Brown Book Group, a Hachette UK Company, London.

Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Random House, Inc.

Excerpts from poems by W. H. Auden appear courtesy of Edward Mendelson, Executor of the Estate of W. H. Auden, and Random House, Inc.

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
McCall Smith, Alexander, [date]
The charming quirks of others / Alexander McCall Smith.
p. cm. — (Sunday philosophy club 7)
eISBN: 978-0-307-37945-0
1. Dalhousie, Isabel (Fictitious character)—Fiction. 2. Women philosophers—Fiction. 3. Edinburgh (Scotland)—Fiction. I. Title.
PR6063.C326C47    2010      823′.914—dc22    2010028001


This book is for Robin Straus, in gratitude


remarked Isabel Dalhousie. “A time for the burning of ears.”

Guy Peploe, seated opposite her in the back neuk at Glass & Thompson’s café, looked at her blankly. Isabel was given to making puzzling pronouncements—he knew that, and did not mind—but this one, he thought, was unusually Delphic.

He stirred his coffee. “I’m not quite with you, Isabel. Not quite. Burning ears?”

She smiled. She had not intended to be opaque, and it was Guy, after all, who had brought up the subject of Saturday evenings; she was merely picking up on the theme. He had mentioned an opening he had attended last Saturday, a show featuring a Scottish realist painter who had been ignored in his lifetime but who was now lauded as a genius. Everybody had been there; which meant, he said with a laugh, everybody who went to Saturday-evening openings at galleries. The remaining four hundred and eighty thousand people who lived in Edinburgh and its immediate environs had presumably been doing something else.

That had triggered Isabel’s remark about burning ears, which she now went on to explain. “What I meant is that on a Saturday evening,” she said, “there are always a number of dinner parties in Edinburgh. The same people go to dinner with the same people. Backwards and forwards. And what do they talk about on these occasions?”

“Those who aren’t there?” suggested Guy.

Isabel agreed. “Exactly. And there are certain people who are talked about a lot. This is not a particularly big pond, you know. In some ways it’s a village.”

Guy nodded. “All cities have their villages,” he said. “Even the big ones. London claims to be full of them. New York too.”

“But New York
a village,” said Isabel. “It’s called the Village. Which is helpful, I suppose.”

Guy laughed; Isabel’s wry comments, dropped as asides, could seem so arresting even if, when you analysed them, it was hard to say why: this was an example. There was nothing exceptional about what she had said—not on the face of it—but the comment about helpfulness tripped one up.

“Of course,” Isabel continued, “to use the definite article about one’s village demonstrates—how should one put it?—a good conceit of oneself. That clan chief called the MacGregor: Does he correct people who call him
MacGregor? Would he have to say ‘No,
MacGregor, please’?”

“I’m sure he wouldn’t,” said Guy. “People like that are usually very modest. If you’ve been on the go for five hundred years, you’re usually fairly low-key about it.”

Isabel thought that was quite true. She knew a Nobel laureate who referred to “a little prize they were once kind enough
to give me—totally undeserved, of course.” That took some doing, and some strength of character too; how many of us, she wondered, would hide a Nobel prize under our bushel? Her friend had heard the news, she remembered his telling her, through a message left on his telephone answering machine.
This is the Nobel Committee in Stockholm and we are delighted to inform you that you have been awarded the Nobel Prize this year for…

But there was something else to be said about MacGregors. “You do know that their name was interdicted?” she said. “James the Sixth, I’m afraid, reacted rather harshly to some bit of bad behaviour by the MacGregors and made their name illegal. It’s an odd notion, don’t you think? Making a name illegal. They had to start calling themselves things like Murray and so on.”

Guy knew that. Isabel had spoken about it before; she often brought up the Stuarts, for some reason that completely escaped him. People had their historical enthusiasms, he supposed, and the Stuarts were not exactly a tedious dynasty. It might have been better, he thought, if they had been; better for them, that is.

“Mind you,” said Isabel, “it has to be said that James the Sixth was a somewhat miserable piece of work. I’ve tried to like the later Stuarts, you know, but I have to say it’s an effort. Charles the First was such a weak and self-indulged man, and by the time we get to Bonnie Prince Charlie the genes had gone pretty bad. James the Sixth, I suppose, was far brighter than most of them, but he must have been rather difficult company much of the time. Interesting, though: gay kings usually are.”

“Didn’t he have a wretched childhood?” said Guy. “That’s
sometimes an excuse, isn’t it? The fact that one has had an awful time as a child can explain so much, can’t it?”

Isabel reached for her cup of coffee. “Does it? I wonder. I think that there’s a case for putting your early years behind you. Plenty of people have done that. They grow up and then draw a line.”

Guy considered this. “Yet the early years won’t necessarily go away. If you’re desperately unhappy when you’re young, aren’t you damaged goods?”

Isabel was prepared to concede this of James VI. “He had that awful tutor, that Buchanan man, who intimidated him.”

Guy nodded. “An inhumane humanist. Very grim.”

“And James,” Isabel continued, “was brought up in such a loveless atmosphere. A major case of maternal deprivation. Then his mother had her head chopped off, we must remind ourselves. That hardly leads to happiness. And his father was blown up, wasn’t he? Again, not a good thing for a parent, or for anyone, actually.” She paused, warming to the theme, which was a favourite one of hers. She thought Henry Darnley, Mary’s husband, was vain and scheming, a narcissist, and even if one would not wish an explosion on anybody, there were some who did seem to ask for it. “And even before he was blown up he would hardly have been a particularly good father, murdering Mary’s secretary, for heaven’s sake, and having all those affairs.”

She glanced about her. A woman at a nearby table was listening, and not bothering to disguise it; did she realise, Isabel wondered, that they were discussing events of four hundred years ago? But let her listen. “Then, of course, when some light comes into James’s life at last, it is taken away from him.”


“His cousin,” said Isabel. “Esmé Stuart, his cousin from France. He turned up in Scotland when James was thirteen, and James fell in love with him. He was very beautiful, by all accounts, and James at last had a friend. Poor boy.”

The eavesdropper’s eyes widened involuntarily.

He wrote poetry, Isabel continued. This sad boy-king of Scots wrote poetry. After Esmé Stuart had been forced out of Scotland by scheming nobles, James had written a poem about a rare Arabian phoenix coming to Scotland and being persecuted. “That was Esmé,” she said. “The boy he loved. He disguised him in the poem as a female phoenix because, well, in those days … It was so sad. And they are lovely lines—full of sorrow and loss.” And well they might have been, she thought. What sorrow there must be in loving somebody who does not love you back; or loving somebody whom the world says you cannot love.

They both fell silent. Then Guy said, “You were talking about ears burning.”

Isabel toyed with her cup. “Yes. There are a few people in this city who know that every Saturday their names are going to be mentioned at numerous dinner parties. They know it. Imagine that, Guy. Imagine knowing that there are ten, maybe twenty, tables at which you are being taken to pieces and then put together again—if you’re lucky.”

Guy made a face. “Uncomfortable.”

“Yes. Deconstruction always is. And that’s where the burning of ears comes in. If there’s any truth in the idea that your ears burn when somebody’s talking about you—and there isn’t, of course—then imagine the ears of these unfortunates. They must glow like beacons in the night.”

“Gossip,” said Guy. “Nobody should worry about gossip. There’s no need for ears to burn.”

Isabel looked up sharply. “Oh really? Don’t you think that gossip can be pretty wounding?”

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