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Their Lips Talk of Mischief by Alan Warner

Faber & Faber, 2014, 349 p.

This book’s first page after the epigraph (which is from Proverbs 24:2 and also provides the novel with its title) simply gives us the date. 1984. While the Thatcher government and the miners’ strike are an intermittent background concern they never impinge directly on proceedings. Narrator Douglas Cunningham, a Scot, has been thrown out of his rented flat in London, plus his course in English Lit at University College, and is surfing hospital A&E departments as places to spend the night. In one of them he meets Welshman Llewellyn Smith (Lou) whose stitches following a heart operation have burst. Learning of Douglas’s predicament Lou invites him to stay at his flat in Acton where he lives with his girlfriend Aoife McCrissican and their very young daughter, Lily. Lou is also well versed in literature and wants to be a novelist. On entering the flat Lou quotes “‘that Cyril Connolly bastard. The enemy of promise is the pram in the hallway,’” then adds, “‘Is it now? Our hallway is too narrow to fit the bloody pram in.’” His generous offer seems to be taken in her stride by Aoife, who accepts Douglas readily into their lives (helped initially by the bribe of an Indian carry-out.) However, even as he settles down to live with them for a while we suspect where this will all be going when Douglas tells us she is menacingly beautiful.

Theirs is a curious tripartite relationship. Lou, like Douglas, is fond of drink and the odd bit of financial finagling as the trio’s existence is one long round of trying to find money to live on and secure enough alcohol to get by. All take turns at looking after Lily. (She seems uncannily placid for a pre-toddler, though.) Slight monetary relief is secured when a publisher engages both men to write one-line puffs for schlocky horror novels. Aoife is a former model and hankers to get back to that, an aspiration on which Lou is less keen. Aoife’s best friend, Abingdon Barbour, also a model, acts as occasional foil to the others. At Lou and Aoife’s Register Office wedding Douglas and Abby are best man and bridesmaid.

Lou is a (somewhat lapsed) Catholic and refers to Douglas as an atheist because of his assumed Presbyterianism. Douglas’s narrative comment that, “Summer was agony for the idle Scot. It was September, and I had a natural right to some driving sleet, or at least a blessed frost,” takes homesickness a little too far though. Lou also sometimes ends a sentence addressed to Douglas with the word boyo. I have never personally heard a Welsh person say this. Is it a reflection of Warner’s experience with Welsh people or merely a lazy attempt at characterisation? If the latter it is misguided. Lou’s behaviour and speech are comprehensible enough and need no prop to give them verisimilitude. All the main characters – and the minor ones too – live and breathe as people with their own motivations and habits.

Lou is the most pass-remarkable of them. He describes a bunch of squaddies who tried to chat Aoife up while they were on their way to her parents’ house for Christmas as, “‘king’s shilling fascists, restless since the Falklands, I should guess. Itching to poke their Armalites into another country’s business. The English are never happy unless they are.’” Of his father-in-law he says, “‘Never trust a Catholic who doesn’t drink. They’re either converted, poxed or psychotic.’”

I have said before that Warner’s early novels left me cold but as in The Worms Can Carry Me To Heaven, The Deadman’s Pedal and The Stars in the Bright Sky Warner has captured here a slice of life in convincing detail. One more novel to chronicle the perennial fascination of love and sex. (Death does occur here but it is a natural one, of Lou’s grandmother, Myrtle, who brought him up. Her funeral recharges his Catholicism though, which more or less leads to the novel’s final crisis.)

Humans can be bewilderingly complex creatures. Novels such as this give us the vicarious experience of knowing others, feeling their loves, betrayals and, on occasion, nobility, without having to live with them and the consequences of their actions.

Pedant’s corner:- “‘Its affected, boyo.’” (‘It’s affected’,) shrunk (shrank,) a missing comma before – and after – a quoted piece of speech, ass (several times; is used annoyingly in that USian way to refer to the female posterior. The nearest – and more true to the narrator’s background – British equivalent is ‘bum’,) “the baby was laying in Aoife’s lap” (the baby was lying in Aoife’s lap,) “and immediately ascended stairs with banisters and blank walls on either side of you” (I got the imprsession this was a stairway flanked by walls, in which case there would be no need of banisters. Handrails maybe, but not banisters,) “gin and limes” (‘and lime’ here is an adjectival phrase to the noun ‘gin’, the plural is ‘gins’; so, ‘gins and lime’ or ‘gins with lime’”,) Wales’ (x 2, Wales’s,) “he was sat” (he was sitting,) “I was sat” (I was sitting,) “I turned to look and her” (to look at her,) “my zipper” (my zip,) maw (it’s a stomach, not a mouth.)

The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner

Jonathan Cape, 2010, 398 p.

The Stars in the Bright Sky cover

This is a sequel of sorts to Warner’s 1998 novel The Sopranos where a group of girls from the school Our Lady of Perpetual Succour went on a trip to Edinburgh from their town – known in Warner’s novels as ‘the Port’ – for a choir competition, but they saw it instead as an opportunity for a night on the razz in the big city.

Now adults, Kylah, Chell, Manda, Kay, Finn and Finn’s friend from university, Ava, are planning a holiday abroad. They meet up on a Friday evening at a hotel near Gatwick Airport preparatory to utilising a last minute booking for taking off to Europe, settling on Magaluf as a destination.

Much has changed since The Sopranos. In the interim one of them has had an abortion, another a baby – always referred to by mother Manda as ‘wee Sean’ – by a waster of a father, and Finn’s studies at Oxford have created a distance between them. She has, for instance, never been to Rascals, the Port’s newest night venue, which Manda in particular regards as the height of sophistication. (I use that last word in its modern sense rather than the original of world-weariness.) Despite, though, Ava’s upper middle class background they begin to settle down together and forge – or re-forge – bonds. Manda is something of a force of nature, overbearing and scornful, but also vulnerable. It is through her mislaid passport that the group’s plans go awry and they are forced to forfeit the already outlaid money and to spend the weekend in or around the airport and its hotels waiting for a cheap flight to Las Vegas. The interlude provides time for an eventful trip to Hever Castle and back plus copious drinking opportunities.

Incidental comments and snippets underline the contrast between those who stayed in the Port and those who left and Warner’s focus on the girls’ relationships lends a creeping claustrophobia to the situation. Their knowledge of and regard for each other, though, remain the central core of the book. Yet there are still revelations. In one break away from the others Finn describes Ava to Kay as “a legendary, awful cokehead” who, she hopes, has given it up.

Perhaps a not-so-subtle note of class consciousness on Warner’s part occurs when Ava says, “‘When you’ve plenty money there’s no such thing as a drug problem,’” because your parents can get a lawyer to get you off on a first offence. Yet if you live on a council estate the authorities will throw the book at you. Ava continues, “‘It’s all semantics. What problem? You have a supply, you have no drug problem.’”

As befits his characters the dialogue tends to the earthy but Warner’s ability to get inside the heads of young women eager for a bit of hedonism (some of whom are customarily given small chance of that) is impressive.

I did not much take to The Sopranos when I read it, nor to the rest of Warner’s early work, as I said here on his later novel The Deadman’s Pedal. However I found both that and his The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven more congenial. The Stars in the Bright Sky was published between those two books. Does it say something about me or Warner’s later writing that I had less of an aversion to it than to The Sopranos? (I’m not in a hurry to go back to that book and check, though. Too much else to read.)

Pedant’s corner:- ballisters (balusters,) a missing end quote mark, “‘you credit card’” (your credit card,) ass (it’s ‘arse’ – which is employed later,) “the swinging toilets door” (toilets’ or toilet’s.) “Hanging from … were a gang of” (was a gang of.) “A moody pocket of lads were stepping out” (strictly, a pocket .. was stepping out.) “A babble of excited voices were …” (strictly, a babble … was,) “a vast mass of …were visible” (a vast mass … was visible,) “high jinx” (high jinks,) sprung (sprang.) “The vast bulk of … were back” (the vast bulk …. was back.) “‘That a sweet thing ..’” (That’s a sweet thing,) “the camera was a snugged, tight lump was in the skirt pocket” (no second ‘was’ needed,) “laying in the lap” (lying,) shrunk (shrank,) “she was laying out long upon her bed” (she was lying out,) sunk (sank,) “with a curled lips” (no ‘a’.) “‘You don’t seems nervous.’” (seem,) “a dossal attached to their sides” (dorsal?)

Descent by Ken MacLeod

Orbit, 2014, 407 p.

This book is dedicated to the memory of the author’s close friend, Iain (M) Banks, and may be considered as a tribute. It is topped and tailed by two of the protagonist’s dreams, titled respectively 0.1111 Recurring and 0.2222 Recurring. The first of these is very Banksian in tone.

Some time in the near(ish) future Ryan Sinclair and his friend Calum, who has a more demotic form of speech than Ryan, have a close encounter with a strange silver sphere in the hills above Greenock. Ryan thereafter experiences dreams/memories of the classic UFO alien abduction scenario. Calum does not. Both are subsequently visited by mysterious strangers – in Ryan’s case a man calling himself the Reverend James Baxter, a literal Man in Black. Thereafter Baxter figures intermittently throughout the novel. (Quite why MacLeod used the name of perhaps Scotland’s most famous footballer for this character is obscure; to me at least.)

Descent contains simultaneously an exploration and a debunking of the UFO abduction story but is also much more than this. Calum tells Ryan a family history about uniqueness and distancing. In his later life as a freelance science journalist, Ryan uncovers evidence, through fertility statistics, of speciation occurring within humans. This affects Ryan’s life directly in his relationship with Gabrielle, one of Calum’s relatives, whom he meets at a wedding. While Ryan is busy with his Highers* a worldwide change in economic arrangements called the Big Deal saves capitalism from itself by instituting what Calum refers to as a kind of socialism (but if it is, it is very dilute.) The pre-Big Deal revolutionaries evaporate away in this new dispensation where jobs are more abundant, while silver airships and smart fabrics make their appearance. Otherwise people’s activities, drinking, vaping (presumably of e-cigs,) buying, selling, work and relationships are more or less as we know them now. The UFO aspect of his story allows MacLeod to have some fun with government’s response to such manifestations.

The early scenes set in Greenock bear some similarities to Alan Warner’s The Deadman’s Pedal. Both novels have at their start a sixteen year old protagonist, a West of Scotland seaside town setting, a sudden attraction to a girl. The writing of the two novels is comparable also. Descent is a different beast altogether, however. While Warner’s book dealt with politics only obliquely MacLeod has always been a writer whose interest in political ideas has been foregrounded in his fiction. He never lets it get in the way of the story but his engagement with politics is distinctive among SF writers.

In character terms Descent deals with betrayal, revenge and redemption. While the SF elements are necessary to the plot, they could be considered as trappings, scaffolding on which to build the human story.

A nice touch was the inclusion of the phrase, “Gonnae naw dae that,” made famous in Scotland by the TV series Chewin’ the Fat.

*A Scottish educational qualification (originally the Higher School Leaving Certificate) and roughly equivalent to A-levels, but undertaken over one year.) Nitpick:- page 84 refers to Calum excelling at O-level technical drawing. O-levels were not a Scottish examination. Some Scottish schools did enter their pupils for them but I doubt that happened in Greenock. Nor will it. The Scottish equivalent, O-grades, were superseded in the 1980s by Standard Grades, which in their turn have this year been replaced by National 3, 4 and 5 qualifications. O-levels were replaced in England by GCSEs from 1988.

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