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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?)

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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