Alexander McCall Smith: The author on the lie of 'failed' Africa, swearing in public, and travels with his teapot

The Zimbabwean-born British author believes that there is a mindset that treats sub-Saharan Africa as a failed continent, perpetuated in attitudes and images of famine, poverty and diseases, such as Ebola

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The Independent Culture

I'm sometimes accused of being a utopian writer Well, with books such as the The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, I've never pretended to be a social realist, concentrating on the negative. A lot of writers do that very well: I live two doors down from [the crime writer] Ian Rankin, who writes about the harsh face of our times, which has to be reflected, too. But it's possible to portray positive lives.

I greatly admire Botswana [where McCall Smith's The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series is set]. I went there in the 1980s to co-found the University of Botswana Law faculty. What I found was a deep respect and courtesy for others, as well as a certain reticence: they are quiet, unshowy people who have carefully constructed their country brick by brick since independence. They've used their diamond wealth positively, to build infrastructure and institutions, which they have great pride in.

There is a mindset that treats sub-Saharan Africa as a failed continent It's perpetuated in attitudes and images of famine, poverty and diseases, such as Ebola. I'm not denying that there are major issues and that there aren't corruption and horrors – I was in Rwanda. But you don't have to go too far back in European history to see that here, too. I think we love to dwell on the dysfunctional, but we need to realise that positive lives are being lead there.

I love reading about social humour You get a lot of that in Jane Austen; she was wonderful at looking at foibles through exchanges of sharp remarks and word play. I particularly like the dinner-party scenes in Emma [McCall Smith has adapted the novel into a contemporary retelling]. And of course I like that wonderful picnic scene in the original, in which Emma is sharply brought up about her cruelty towards poor Mrs Bates, with Mr Knightley's reprimand, "How could you be so unfeeling and insolent in your wit?… It was badly done indeed!"

I travel with my teapot I spend a lot of time travelling, and tea takes on an almost sacramental importance, as I want to be comfortable. It's difficult to get tea in America, though, as it has never fully recovered from the Boston Tea Party trauma, and is now a coffee-drinking democracy. It's particularly hard to find any in hotels with kettles.

We have a dreadful problem of child poverty in Scotland There is a [ thread of] violence in the culture here, too. But if we dwelt only on the dysfunctional side to our culture, to the omission of all else, we would exclude all the good and beautiful things about Scotland. I dream about Edinburgh, for instance. In my dreams, I'm aware of taking long walks along the streets, which resemble an opera set, with gorgeous old façades to the buildings. It's a misty and mysterious city and thus suitable for dreams.

I'm as flawed and as selfish as everyone But I always try to remember the family motto of a generous-spirited man I knew, who is no longer with us. His two words summed him up – "Be kind." What better motto could any of us adopt?

Four-letter words pollute the air People swearing loudly in public – particularly in enclosed spaces, such as trains and buses – is an act of aggression and an intrusion into other people's lives. Recently I saw a man shouting abuse at a taxi marshal at Edinburgh airport, blaming him for the paucity of taxis; it was shocking.

Alexander McCall Smith, 66, is a Zimbabwean-born British author of more than 100 books. 'A Work of Beauty: Alexander McCall Smith's Edinburgh' (£25, RCAH MS) and 'The Handsome Man's De Luxe Café' (£16.99, Little, Brown) are out now

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