Archives » The Stars in the Bright Sky

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 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.

free hit counter script