In 1973, when Alexander McCall Smith was 25, he took his first job, as a junior law lecturer, at Queen's University in Belfast. It was slap bang in the middle of the Troubles and, as he recalls, "a very difficult time".
"It was really a low-grade civil war," says the Scottish writer on the phone from Edinburgh. "You heard bombs going off, gunfire and what not, and people's awareness of life was heightened in the middle of this. I once strayed into difficulty, it was potentially tricky. Belfast was a very divided city. I took a wrong turn and discovered I was on Falls Rd [the centre of the Republican movement] and got caught up in this demonstration that was confronting the British Army.
"There were young men with guns under their jackets and they were yelling on the loudspeaker, 'If you consider yourselves true Irishmen, get off the pavement and into the road.' So I did. The crowd was shouting at the soldiers and throwing things and eventually I somehow detached myself from the crowd and sauntered through the soldiers and went home."
McCall Smith, now aged 65, still managed to find good things during his year in Belfast, not least of which was a deep love which has endured all his life: the discovery of the great English poet, W.H. Auden. "I remember the moment when I was in the library and took Auden's Shorter Poems off the shelf. It was one of those moment's in one's life that one doesn't, at the time, realise how significant it is going to be."
McCall Smith, who has written nearly 40 novels (that have sold about 40 million copies) over the past decade, including the hugely popular No 1 Ladies Detective Agency and the Isabel Dalhousie series, has paid homage to his poet hero in a small book as part of the Princeton University "Writers on Writers" series, What W.H. Auden Can Do For You.
It could just as easily be dubbed "What Alexander McCall Smith Can Do For You". A quietly reflective survey of how Auden, who wrote verse about the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s, has remained relevant in today's world, it also offers McCall Smith's concerns about how we lead our lives and where we are heading. As with his novels, McCall Smith manages to impart subtle wisdom in his writing, without being preachy.
He explains in the book that Auden's poetry responded to "the salient challenges of his times ... [and now] many of us feel that we are living in a time of heightened flux and crisis".
"I think we do feel that," he affirms. "After the end of the Cold War people thought that the greatest threat to humanity had been removed and we were entering a period of mutual understanding. Then the world changed. Obviously there was a major change when New York was attacked, then we had the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and now we see some of the old tensions have come back with Russia getting jumpy and annexing part of the neighbouring territory. We see many of the things that Auden saw when he witnessed the rise of European fascism.
"Of course, there is always crisis somewhere in the world but this is something quite depressing - seeing a Russian leader who regrets the loss of the Soviet empire. I think that is very worrying."
McCall Smith brightens when he recalls the day he was on a break from Belfast and saw Auden give a reading in Edinburgh. It was shortly before the poet's death in September, 1973. "He had a very compelling voice, an interesting accent," he says. "His flies were undone, he was very dishevelled, his suit was covered in cigarette ash, he wore carpet slippers. A major mess, ha ha, but that didn't matter."
McCall Smith says he becomes alarmed when he learns of countries where the school curriculum no longer includes poetry, such as Australia, where he toured last month. "I had a conversation with people complaining about how poetry wasn't being taught. It's such a terrible thing. Poetry learned as a child gives us a reference point, a way of seeing the world. When I was a boy we had to learn it and that was a wonderful thing to have done in retrospect, so what are people thinking?"
When I suggest it might be because the people shaping the curricula may regard poetry as having no market value, he explodes. "Ooh, what philistines!" he bellows.
McCall Smith, who writes about three books each year, is scarily productive. Aside from the Auden book, he has just produced the 14th No 1 Ladies Detective saga, The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, and a one-off novel called The Forever Girl, a rather curious tale about unrequited love.
"I never thought I would get up to number 14, no, definitely not," he says, "and here I am writing number 15 at the moment, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe ... the pleasure hasn't palled at all, so I just continue."
He used to be heavily engaged in roles with the Human Genetics Commission and the Bioethics Commission of Unesco, but has retired from all of that, now focusing on a pleasurable mix of writing, travelling and sailing his yacht around the Caribbean. It's a good life.
"Writing is what I do now," he says, happily. "I have various projects like charities and a very big project over the last couple of years doing the Great Tapestry of Scotland, the longest tapestry in the world. I am chairman of that. It is such a beautiful tapestry, stitched by volunteers and showing the history of Scotland. Never a dull moment, really."
McCall Smith won't reveal his stance on Scotland's vote for independence in September. "I am not expressing views on that. I don't get involved publically in politics, it's almost like an abuse of the authorial position. Why should my views be of any greater interest than anyone else's?"
But he can reveal, in the parlance of his traditionally built No 1 Ladies heroine Mma Ramotswe, that his beloved Tonkinese cat Gordon, often featured in photos with the writer over the past decade, is "late".
Oh no! In the words of Auden's Funeral Blues (recited by John Hannah during the funeral scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral): "Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone/ Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone/ Silence the pianos and the muffled drum/ Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come."
Not quite. McCall Smith is looking on the bright side. "We now have his successor, Augustus, who took his job," he purrs. "He is related to Gordon and is one of the great cats of his generation. He is wonderful."
Alexander McCall Smith will appear at the Auckland Writers Festival at the Aotea Centre on May 15 and 16. He will talk to poet Harry Ricketts about W.H. Auden on May 17 at 4pm.