The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner

Alan Warner enjoyed critical success from his first novel Morvern Callar which was mainly set in a never named West of Scotland seaside town (but clearly identifiable as – indeed an almost undisguised – Oban.) He followed this up with These Demented Lands, The Sopranos and The Man Who Walks. I found all of these well worth reading but not quite fully successful. However his 2006 novel The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven in retrospect worked very well, though I seem to have been excessively grudging about it in my post. I have not yet read The Stars in the Bright Sky from 2010 but his latest, The Deadman’s Pedal, while I have minor quibbles about it, is a very good piece of fiction indeed.

We are once more in Warner’s reimagined Oban. It is 1973 and 15 year old Simon Crimmons, son of the owner of a road haulage firm, is fed up with school and wants to leave. On his last school day, 8th June, (Really? That’s at least three weeks earlier than most of Scotland’s schools break up for the summer) he is awaited at the school gates by Nikki Caine who becomes his girlfriend. However, a few days before their first actual date, out on a walk in the hills he is tantalised by glimpses of Varie, the daughter of the local toff, Andrew Bultitude. Bultitude has the title Commander of the Pass and his family lives in the delightfully named house Broken Moan. Unusually, Bultitudes are buried in the house’s grounds, in glass graves, so that the dead can be seen. The book, apart from a small preamble evoking the sensations of driving a train through the Argyll night, starts off with a scene set in those grounds prior to a 1961 visit from the Queen. Though each chapter is given a date for a title and relates the events of a single day, the chronology isn’t linear. In particular chapter three flashes back to the funeral of a local railway worker in early 1973 where tales are told of a railwayman’s prank which took place on the royal train for that 1961 visit. Without really meaning to Simon ends up being interviewed for a job on the railway as a diesel locomotive driver to replace the deceased. This leads to passages devoted to the art of driving a diesel train – the novel could almost be a primer for that activity. A deadman’s pedal is of course the safety device which ensures that a train cannot be driven if the driver is unconscious – or dead at the controls.

The conversations of 1970s adolescent boys are very well captured, their bluster and crudeness, as is the banter between the railway workers. The parts of the book dealing with the train drivers could be a eulogy to that vanished sense of solidarity and socialism which James Robertson also touched on recently in And The Land Lay Still. A possible intrusion from the twenty-first century comes when staunch union man John Penalty says, “One day there’ll be nae union and they’ll be shovelling the management’s shite from under their arses as it comes out. Then they’ll be told to tip it over their own heids, and they will.” Pretty much a description of present day workplace conditions.

Not that other perspectives are omitted. Simon’s dad has the outlook of a small businessman; he is also a DCM and bar from the North African and Italian campaigns in World War 2, though unlike those who weren’t at the sharp end he is reluctant to speak about his experiences. Andrew Bultitude – as those in his social position do – assumes his own wishes will always prevail.

Warner portrays excellently the more or less stifling experience of growing up in the early 1970s in a West of Scotland town with only one cinema and dodgy television reception – the mysteries of STV are here known to only a few. Curiously, though, he refers to the transmitter mast on the hill above the town as an aerial. However his decision to transliterate part of the West of Scotland dialect by using “should of,” “would of” and “could of” irritated me immensely. More annoyingly he was not always consistent with this. His use of “nut” for the West of Scotland “no” also didn’t feel quite right. While the “t”s in button and so on are not pronounced – it is sounded more like “buh’n” – I still often read it as a kernel. It’s a pity too that there were infelicities like Scholl’s for Scholls, Balqhuidder for Balquhidder, calomine for calamine, lay for lie, snuck for sneaked, blaise for blaes. And we had the phrase the Queen of England; which is annoying on several levels. As I exemplified above, in these islands the woman in question is usually referred to simply as the Queen. In addition she is not merely Queen of England but of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia and loads of other places besides. Someone in Simon Crimmons’s shoes would surely have been aware of this.

A back cover puff from the Scottish Review of Books says, “This is the best Scottish fiction since Lanark.” While I wouldn’t go quite so far, The Deadman’s Pedal is, quibbles above notwithstanding, without doubt a superior work. It will be in my best of the year for sure.

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  1. Peggy Ann

    Sounds good, Jack. And a lot of the little things that bothered you will probably go right over my American head! So I’ll enjoy it all the more. With a house named Broken Moan how can you go wrong!

  2. jackdeighton

    Peggy Ann,
    I enjoyed the book a lot – I’m just a pedantic so and so.
    Broken Moan is a great name for a house (but most of the book’s action takes place outside it.)
    I’ve now added links both to my blog post on The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven and to STV (Scottish Television) which I somehow forgot when posting.

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