Bertie Plays the Blues

This is the second most recent in the 44 Scotland Series by Alexander McCall Smith.


This reviewer finds, in contrast to the No 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, that these books indulge rather too much in inner speech and philosophising.

I find that this in fact is one if the great delights of 44 Scotland Street, and of Bertie Plays the Blues in particular. The novel ends with a version of this Celtic spiral based on the Book of Kells.


Those interlocked hands symbolise the secular Christianity that is at the heart of McCall Smith’s benignly conservative world view.

But it would be wrong to become cynical,
Would be wrong to dismiss the possibility
Of making bearable the suffering of so many
By acts of love in our own lives…
How foolish I once thought I was
To believe in all this; how warmly
I now return to that earlier belief;
How fervently I hope that it is true,
How fervently I hope that it is so.

That is from a poem by the artist Angus Lordie in the final chapter. Chapter 63, about two-thirds into the novel, is titled “Solastalgia Explained” and is another key aspect of McCall Smith’s world view, one that many of a certain age share in, including myself to a fair degree and others I know to a greater or lesser extent. I really commend pages 241 to 243. I would cut and paste them if I could! On the novel see also Bertie Plays the Blues – Alexander McCall Smith.

The term solastalgia is an Australian coinage!

Solastalgia is a neologism coined by the Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht in 2003 with the first article published on this concept in 2005. It describes a form of psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change, such as mining or climate change.

As opposed to nostalgia – the melancholia or homesickness experienced by individuals when separated from a loved home – "solastalgia" is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment. A paper published by Albrecht and collaborators focused on two contexts where collaborative research teams found solastalgia to be evident: the experiences of persistent drought in rural New South Wales (NSW) and the impact of large-scale open-cut coal mining on individuals in the Upper Hunter Valley of NSW. In both cases, people exposed to environmental change experienced negative affect that is exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the unfolding change process.

What a useful word. It may be applied to a lot more than the psychological effects of environmental change – as indeed McCall Smith does. I suspect Jim Belshaw will find the idea resonates.

See also Clive Thompson on How the Next Victim of Climate Change Will Be Our Minds (Wired) and Glenn Albrecht, The age of solastalgia.

The built and natural environments are now changing so rapidly that our language and conceptual frameworks have to work overtime just to keep up. Under the intertwined impacts of global development, rising population and global warming, with their accompanying changes in climate and ecosystems, there is now a mismatch between our lived experience of the world, and our ability to conceptualise and comprehend it.

No longer is the “wisdom of the elders” relevant to how we should live in the here and now, and this loss of historically informed knowledge has implications for social cohesion.

I experienced the connections between mental health and changes to a once predictable and loved home-environment when examining the impact of open-cut coal mining in the Upper Hunter region of NSW. My own eco-biography, the seminal influences in my life that have influenced my feelings about the natural environment, had attuned me to the importance of a positive “sense of place” in people’s lives, and to the significance of what the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan called “topophilia”, or the love of place and landscape…