Alexander McCall Smith’s diary: Meeting Babar’s creator

Plus: The other referendum Scotland needs, a revolution in life jackets, suggested topics for David Cameron

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

8 February 2014

9:00 AM

As any author will tell you, literary festivals differ widely. If you are invited to Willy Dalrymple’s Jaipur Festival, with its renowned final party, you say yes within minutes of receiving the invitation. Other invitations you might take a little longer to accept.

The Key West Literary Seminar, which took place a couple of weeks ago, is one of the glamorous ones. I was ready for Florida, as Scotland had been visited by gale after gale and accompanying driving rain. As luck would have it, we arrived in Key West at exactly the same time as the polar vortex that had frozen the entire United States, including a normally balmy Florida. No matter: Key West was, for the duration, one huge literary celebration.

I was invited to lunch at a house in the old part of the town. The host turned out to be none other than Laurent de Brunhoff, who does the Babar books. I have always loved Babar, as have my children, and there I was standing in a studio looking at a sketch pad on which there was a picture of an elephant in a green jacket. Is there one of those German composite words for that feeling you get when you are suddenly confronted with something decidedly iconic? If not, Ben Schott should invent it: his recent book lists the German composite words for all sorts of things, including one for that feeling of pride and pleasure you experience when you put the memory stick into the USB slot the right way round first time.

Back in Scotland, the general conversation is dominated by the subject that last year we all thought we would get bored with rather quickly: the referendum. If it ever was boring, it no longer is. The polls suggest at present a ‘no’ result, but people talk about private polls (whatever those are) that suggest that it is going to be very close. The Scottish government, to its credit, is carrying out a referendum, but it might perhaps be a little bit readier to listen to what Scottish judges and lawyers are saying. There is a proposal to remove an ancient protection in Scots criminal law that requires corroboration for criminal conviction. The overwhelming majority of lawyers in Scotland say that this should be kept, but no, the populist attitude of government is that ‘the community’ (in other words, those who agree with the government) wants higher conviction rates. The air is filled with the sound of warning bells.

There was crime in Key West, of course, but not very much. Over dinner I was told this: ‘We have a burglar here on the island — a very particular burglar. He’s only burgling houses near the old cemetery, and he only steals Apple Mac products. He returns to the houses he has burgled once they have replaced their iPads and Mac computers, and steals them again.’ I found this very intriguing. A bit of profiling might help: the burglar is clearly a person of taste and refinement; he doesn’t touch Windows… or he does in one sense, perhaps. He remains at large.

I am shortly going sailing and am thinking about life jackets. Life jackets, as the name suggests, are intended to save your life and in many cases will do just that. But they can also drown you very quickly if you are attached to a safety line and the boat does not stop within a minute or two. This happens because the line is attached to the front of the jacket and you can be pulled along with your head under the water. This is a design flaw in every single life jacket ever made, but now a glorious British invention puts the ring for the safety line on the back of the jacket. As a result, you are pulled backwards, with your head out of the water, and you are able to breathe. It seems so obvious, as so many good inventions are: simply turn things round.

Mr Cameron seems to be prepared to speak out on certain subjects that many other politicians avoid. This is very welcome. I think it’s about time he took a dig at the Turner Prize. I am unconvinced by the banal installations and grainy videos that consistently win that particular prize. The Prime Minister needs to take the lead and say that the emperor has no clothes. He has also failed to address the question of whether men should use facial moisturiser (many women think they should) — or should that be left to one of his colleagues? It would carry more weight if it came from the Prime Minister, but he has a lot on his plate and might not get round to it. Boris could, though.

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Alexander McCall Smith is the author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series — and of The Forever Girl, out this week.

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