“I like pigs ‒ I used to have a small pig farm, until we realised it was a good way of losing money. I’m very pro-pig,” said Alexander McCall Smith when informed of his Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse 2015 prize win and the Gloucestershire Old Spot pig that would go with it, a pig that would be named after his winning novel “Fatty O’ Leary’s Dinner Party”.

Of course this “substantial prize” is a little bit more than an enthusiastic Hay-on-Wye porker (I say enthusiastic knowingly; have you met the pigs of Hay? They rush at you with nothing less than ardour). Besides the pig, there is champagne and a mini Wodehouse library to be had, but it is the prize’s recognition of outstanding comic flair in fiction that makes this award special.

Because comic flair is rare. McCall Smith has been demonstrating his uncommon ease with comedy since he created feisty but funny Mma Ramotswe in 1999. The No.1 Ladies Detective Agency was meant to be a single book, but so popular did it prove that McCall Smith took to writing full-time.

Since then, he has produced 15 novels in the No.1 series, diversifying into books on Bertie, the Sunday Philosophy Club, and The Scotland Street series, with Fatty popping up (with great agility for such a “generously proportioned” man) last year. Through it all, he has displayed a comic instinct possessed by few contemporary novelists.

Explaining their choice, the judging panel said, "It's right and proper to couple the names of Alexander McCall Smith and PG Wodehouse. No writer in recent times has been a more prolific dispenser of wit. He makes people laugh out loud, and, like everyone who understands the absurdities of life, he understands sadness too.”

AMS’s people

McCall Smith doesn’t fight shy of introducing plot strands that deal with tragedy and inequity, even in the benign world of Mma Ramotswe’s Botswana. We discover that our favourite female detective lost a baby in her youth, her oddball assistant (Yikes. I meant associate) Mma Makutsi had known grinding poverty, and even the equanimous JLB Matekoni had experienced the depths of depression.

But the author laces every one of these stories with a sympathetic humour that is neither dark, nor inappropriate. You’re left with the feeling that terrible things do happen but they can be borne and even turned into triumphs. “Every day we get letters,” says the genuinely touched author, “moving letters, about how Mma Ramotswe has helped her readers by being their companion through tough times, and it’s wonderful to hear.”

But if he does seem to be saying through his characters, “Chin up. Tomorrow’s another day,” there’s never moralising or heavy-handed hectoring involved. Fatty O’ Leary, for example, gets into a lot of scrapes. Quite literally, because he’s a large man who finds far too often that the world isn’t designed for the generously proportioned. From plane seats to Victorian bathtubs to rowboats, Fatty gets intimate with them in ways he would rather not have. And if the situations he lands in are absurd, Fatty himself is more than a little ridiculous.

But we laugh with Fatty, not at him. Because Fatty knows how incongruous it all is, even in his darkest hour. Even when forced to go clothes-shopping in a strange town wrapped in a quilt because his own garments have gone missing.

“I shall have to improvise,” said Fatty, looking about him. He hoped to see a bathrobe hanging on the back of the door, but there was nothing. And the towels, although crisp and freshly-laundered, were decidedly too small to wrap round him. “What about the quilt cover?” Betty asked after a few minutes. “We could cut a hole for your head and arms up at the top and your legs could go through the slit at the other end.”

Fatty was doubtful, but realised that there was no other possibility. He would willingly have donned Betty’s clothes for the purpose of the expedition, but although she was generously built, he was even more so, and he knew that they would not fit. Using her travel scissors, Betty cut a neat circular hole at the top of the cover, with two further holes at each side, one for each arm. Then, lifting the billowing white garment over Fatty’s head, she slipped it down over his body, to envelop him like a voluminous toga, or wheat sack or collapsed parachute perhaps.”

But sympathising with Fatty doesn’t mean we don’t feel a kinship with some of the characters he comes up against. We are as sorry for Fatty when he finds himself inadvertently taking over his co-passengers’ seats on the plane to Ireland, as we are for his co-passengers. And that’s where McCall Smith excels, infusing each character and circumstance with large doses of likeability. Trust me when I say it’s nearly impossible to like the big fella who’s appropriated most of your paid-through-the-nose flight seat and is digging into your pack of salted peanuts as well, but McCall Smith makes us do exactly that.

But is he at all like Plum?

In fact, this year’s Wodehouse Prize winner is so far ahead of the pack when it comes to genial warmth and affable but sly humour that it’s not a stretch to compare him to the great Plum. Combined with that other thing that Wodehouse had in spades; a rare understanding of what makes us tick, makes McCall Smith his rightful successor.

Yet he doesn’t see himself as the inheritor of PG’s comic crown. “I appreciate him,” he said of Plum, “but I’m certainly not a great expert. I wouldn’t say he’s an influence.” Despite the similarities in their convivial worldview, McCall Smith is so much more than a facsimile. Plum’s stories are like musicals. His words sang, while his characters waltzed across well-heeled settings. Every book was a virtuoso performance that would have had us rolling in the aisles had we not been guffawing in sweltering Kolkata buses instead.

McCall Smith is less of a showman. The tools of his trade are quieter – the mellow humour, a delicate, almost feminine sizing up of people and the subdued melancholy that so often shows up too.

Not surprising then that he draws inspiration from women writers and characters – Barbara Pym and the Mapp and Lucia books of EF Benson amongst them. Like the latter, he is particularly skilled at portraying women. He is certainly drawn to gentle, almost laidback practitioners of the craft of comedy, which includes, to the surprise and pleasure of his Indian fans, R K Narayan. Malgudi and Mochudi though continents apart are closer than we think.

Sleepy places rooted in an older way of life, they are full of strong, wise and funny characters. Both are seen through the eyes of a child – the young Precious Ramotswe in McCall Smith’s No.1 series and Narayan’s mischievous Swami in Malgudi Days.  Of Narayan he has written, “This great novelist's achievement is the portrayal of the world and its great themes through the depiction of the minutiae of life. He lets his characters demonstrate to us, through their very ordinary thoughts and actions, what it is to be human.” McCall Smith could have been describing himself.

The India connection

Naturally, when I caught up with him in the pretty little village of Lowdham in England, we spent almost all our time talking about India, especially Kolkata which he visited in 2009. As we sat shivering in the vestry of the Norman church in which we’d agreed to meet, nursing hot cups of tea and a simmering resentment against the ancient radiator that refused to stir into action, he recounted his trip to Kolkata with affection. As witty in life as in his fiction, he soon had me laughing aloud at his fond but funny reminiscences of the Kolkata Book Fair, Oxford Book Store on Park Street, and the warm and wonderful people he’d met.

It was clear he felt a connection to India, its colour, bustle and whimsy. Most of all, he was enamoured of its comic opera approach to everyday life. It’s an attitude which seems to say, “I may make a song and dance about the little things of life but when big problems befall me, I bear those with a smile too.” McCall Smith imbues his characters with the same approach to living.

As he paused for a sip of his tea, I noted with dismay that my time was up. But I had a question I simply had to ask or fear reprisals from Indian friends and family. So, despite the vestry door opening to let in interviewers waiting their turn, I jumped in with my last query. Does he plan to have a pivotal Indian character in one of his novels soon? Or a series based in Kolkata with a Fatty or Bertie or better even, one of those female protagonists he does so well (and with such uncanny insight)?

Me, me, I thought, as he mulled this over with a smile. I could be the one. I could eat cake. Become traditionally built.

As he launched into an answer, the massive church bell in its tower began clanging the hour, drowning out his every word. At that moment the waiting TV crew trooped in too, noisily starting preparations for their shoot. Wait, wait, I protested, I hadn’t caught a word.  But the countdown to going on air had begun, and I had to leave. Just before the vestry door shut though, McCall Smith called out, “email me your question.”

So I have. Watch this space.