Book Review: Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner…coming of age in Scotland

Chisolm Tartan 2013 jpbohannon

Chisolm Tartan
illustration © 2013 jpbohannon

Alan Warner belongs to a certain group of writers who came of age in Scotland in the last decades of the 20th century. Those with more recognizable names would included Irvin Welsh who gave us Trainspotting, James Kelman with his unique voice of urban rootlessness, Ian Banks (who died last week) and A.L. Kennedy with their distinctive fictions, and Ian Rankin who gave us Inspector Rebus and his Edinburgh detective novels. Among these, Alan Warner seems the one who has gained less recognition over here in the States. And that is a shame.

Warner’s first novel Morvern Caller was a magnificent tale of a young woman who steals her dead boyfriend’s novel from his computer, changes the name on the manuscript and quickly and decadently burns through the advance that the novel garners, moving from her dilapidated Scottish town through the ravages of the European rave scene. A later novel with the unfortunate title The Sopranos follows a group of high school choir girls from a rural western outpost on its class trip to Edinburgh. Both novels are memorable for their voice, for the seeming accuracy of Warner’s portrayals of 16 and 17-year olds. And both are fun.

Warner returns to the same locale from which Morvern Caller and the girls from The Sopranos escape in his newest novel, The Deadman’s Pedal. And again, he is dealing with characters of a certain age, characters who are between childhood and adulthood, characters who are innocents even as they are losing their innocence.deadman-s

The novel takes place around “the Port,” Warner’s fictionalized treatment of the town of Oban in western Scotland and is held together by the train line that serves the area and which is dwindling in impact. In fact the title “Deadman’s Pedal” refers to a device that on a runaway train is set to brake in the case of an engineer losing consciousness.

Simon Crimmons is turning sixteen and wants to quit school, get a motorbike, and get a job. He is considered well-to-do by his companions because his father owns a trucking company, but wealth is a relative thing, and the Crimmons family is certainly working class in comparison to the lordly Bultitude’s. In fact, Simon, the town and the novel itself are greatly aware of class distinctions. And this is a running theme throughout.

Yet it is in terms of young Simon’s desires that the class distinctions are most evident. For he is torn between the beautiful and always available Nikki Caine from the Estate houses and the enigmatic Varie Bultitude–of the town’s legendary, aristocracy. Managing such affairs is always risky and managing one between such two disparate worlds is like being on a run-away train.

When Simon mistakenly gets a job as a trainee train driver–he thought he was applying for a hospital position–he discovers the extent of these class divisions. He says to Vaire, “I’ve got the whole railway telling me I’m not working class enough and I’ve got you telling me I’m not middle class enough. This country needs to sort out the class question. As far as it applies to me.”

And to make matters more difficult, Simon’s father is caught up in it as well. He sees his son’s work on the trains as a betrayal, as his son’s working for a competitor that could ultimately put him out of business. It’s never easy being sixteen. It seems much harder for Simon Crimmons.

The joy of the novel–apart from the very real depictions of young desire, lust, and confusion–is the language itself. Some may find the dialect off-putting at first, but it quickly becomes second nature, but the narration itself is pure genius: A funeral for a dead train man is told with humor, nostalgia and poignancy; Simon’s first kiss is described as sweet, anxious, innocent and thrilling; the grounds of the Bultitude property are given an almost gothic eeriness and grandeur. (The Bultitudes are said to bury their dead in glass coffins…the aristocracy is always with us!)

Early in the novel, Simon and his friend Galbraith show Nikki the secret hideout they have built out in the wilds. They make her promise not to mention it to the other boys knowing that it is a childish thing and that the others would tease them for it. It is here that Simon and Nikki first have sex– in a short scene that is both innocent and knowing. It is a scene–positioned in his boyhood escape– that captures the very tension of this novel, the tension between innocence and adulthood, between desire and attainment, between the people and their landscape.

Alan Warner Photo: Jayne Wright

Alan Warner
Photo: Jayne Wright

Alan Warner is an extraordinary writer. That his name is little known outside Britain is an injustice, but one that may be set aright by Deadman’s Pedal–a novel that is larger than its Scottish setting, a novel that is universal in its wonders, its desires, and its struggles.


Book Review: Mo Said She Was Quirky by James Kelman

James Kelman

I first started reading James Kelman back in 1994 when his novel How Late It Was, How Late had just won the Man Booker Award. The novel was entrancing. Driven by a rough Glaswegian dialect that was musical, whimsical and earthy, the novel followed the Kafkaesque troubles of an ex-con who has been beaten, blinded and abandoned.  I remember the plot only faintly, but the language itself will stay with me forever. It was as if Samuel Beckett had plopped down into Glasgow, went on a long bender, and lived to tell the tale.

After that introduction, I read his short story collection, Busted Scotch. Again, while I enjoyed the stories, it was the language that remained. Lively, working-class language, filled with imaginative slang and time-born wisdom.

I remember being excited when I learned of his next novel, You Have to Be Careful In the Land of the Free when it came out in 2005. How wonderful, I thought, to hear that raspy, magical, glittering voice unleashed in the vastness of the Americas. But I was greatly disappointed.  Storyline was never his strong point, but here even the voice had faded. I was off Kelman for a while.

And I guess to my detriment, because Kelman’s next work was widely praised.  Kieron Smith, Boy was a story of an urban and lonely childhood and it was called both “magnificent and important.”  But I missed it and now it’s at the bottom of a long list of must reads.

But I did pick up Kelman’s latest novel, Mo Said She Was Quirky–mainly because of the intriguing title. And once again, the language is at the forefront. Once again we are in a Beckettian world of isolation and words. Yet, unlike anything he did before, in Mo Said She Was Quirky, Kelman’s lyrical speaker is a woman, Helen. The novel is told primarily in the first person, much an extended interior monologue. Other characters appear, but we see and hear them only through Helen’s eyes.

Helen works the night shift at a London casino, where she and her daughter have moved to get away from her no-account husband in Glasgow and where they now share a small, one-bedroom flat with her Pakistani lover, Mo.

In a cab on the way home one night, Helen stares at two homeless men stagger across the intersection in front of the taxi. One of the me stares intently into the cab and Helen recognizes him as her brother. This recognition begins her long night of self-examination, self-incrimination, and self-rationalization. Why is she here? Why is he there? How dysfunctional was her and her brother’s growing up or is this the state of all humanity? Helen is generous in her compassion and stingy with her self-pity. Many have it worse than she, she deliberates, and then realizes that misery, sorrow, and pain are  very relative and the fact that she has a hot shower and another person does not does not make her pain any easier or lighter to bear.

Completely knackered and unused to the night-shift, Helen, nevertheless, cannot sleep. Her mind races with memories of her brother, her damaged parents, her child, her ex, and the kind man she lives with, Mo. She waits until Mo and her daughter waken, watches them go off to school, and yet, still, she cannot sleep.  She thinks greatly about the differences between men and women, the posturing and bullying of those she has known, the favorites that her parents very obviously played. She thinks about racism and worries about Mo. She thinks of the urban jungle and worries about her daughter.

As night turns into day, as Mo takes her child to work, she grabs a few hours of rest but her mind is increasingly racing. And as it does we learn more why this simple-hearted woman is so fraught with worry about the future, so done-in by her present, and so haunted by her past.

I give Kelman a lot of credit for trying what he does so well in a woman’s voice. At times, Helen’s monologue seems to drag but at others it is riveting, revealling bits and bits of a single life and illuminating the mind of a  woman who lives in constant worry about the world around her–and the past that formed her.

I’m not really sure yet how I feel about Mo Said She Was Quirky. I do know that Kelman’s voice in it has me returning to reread How Late It Was, How Late. That’s the novel of his that I loved the most, and the others have yet to measure up.

Hugh MacDiarmid, Robert Burns and My Father

Hugh MacDiarmid

Hugh MacDiarmid times 4

No’ wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is a’body’s property
And gin there was his like alive the day
They’d be the last a kennin’ haund to gi’e–

Croose London Scotties wi’ their braw shirt fronts
And a’ their fancy freen’s, rejoicin’
That Simlah gatherings in Timbuctoo,
Bagdad — and Hell, nae doot–are voicin’

Burns’ sentiments o’ universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastin’ ane wha’s nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin’ Genius wi’ their thochts.

A’ they’ve to say was aften said afore
A lad was born in Kyle to blaw aboot.
What unco fate mak’s him the dumpin’-grun’
For a’ the sloppy rubbish they jaw oot?

Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name
Than in ony’s barrin’ liberty and Christ.
If this keeps spreedin’ as the drink declines,
Syne turns to tea, wae’s me for the Zeitgeist!

Rabbie, wad’st thou wert here–the warld hath need,
And Scotland mair sae, o’ the like o’ thee!
The whisky that aince moved your lyre’s become
A laxative for a loquacity.

from “A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle” (lines 41-64)
Hugh MacDiarmid (1892-1978)

I got involved with this poem yesterday–a poem that I had long forgotten and had once loved dearly.  A student of a friend of mine got in a bit of trouble with it and an art project he was doing. Just a few bad decisions.

Anyway, he was also out of his depth. The poem is nearly a hundred pages long, close to 3000 lines long, and written in the Scots dialect. In it MacDiarmid is bemoaning the present state of the world ( (“Rabbie, wad’st thou wert here–the warld hath need”) and calling for a certain national identity through a link to the past. And of course, as a early-twentieth century Scots poet, for Hugh MacDiarmid that link is Robert Burns.

I have always had an affinity for Burns.  We share the same birthday and hit some of life’s milestones at the same time. But my introduction to him was from my father. My father was not a academic man; he had finished high-school and then out to work. But he had always been a wide-ranging and voracious reader.  And he had a extraordinary memory for the poems he had read in school. Even in old age, he could recite poems that he had learned as a youth.  The one I remember most was Robert Burns’ “To A Louse.”  I remember it because it was his way of teaching humility, of teaching his children not to become too full of themselves.  As a child, I loved the poem because it dealt with the humorous situation of spying a louse crawling in the wig of the elegant lady in front of him at church.  Her social airs and superciliousness are punctured by the creature burrowing through her hair, unknown to her but visible to those in the pew behind.

But making fun of the rich lady was not the point.  The lesson my father was offering was directed to us.  Burns ends the poem with a prayer:

O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!

How perfect.  How humbling. What an antidote to hubris!

I grew older, life went by, and I began reading seriously on my own. Suddenly, many of the pieces that my dad had recited came back into my life.  And I took to Burns. (Even, his most anthologized–”To A Mouse, on Turning up her Nest with a Plough”–is a plea for empathy and understanding among all creatures, not only between humans, although that too certainly is implied. And it was there that I first recognized my father’s oft recited quote about the frequent ruinations of the “best laid plans.”)

In the section of Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem above, the speaker laments the caricature that has been made of Robert Burns over the years. The Burns’ suppers held around the world, the saccharine versions of “Auld Lang Syne” that punctuate each passing year (and that omit most poignant verses), the iconic being that he has been puffed up as, emptied of all the genius, vitality, politics and love that made him what he was.

Instead, MacDiarmid yearns for that great lover of liberty,  the lover of life, the lover of Scotland. For instance, here is Burns simply singing the praises of his love–and stating that even death would not sever its bond:

Fair and lovely as thou art,
Thou hast stown my very heart;
I can die–but canna part,
My bonie dearie.
(“Ca’ the Yowes,”  lines 20-24)

Here in 1792–70 years before the American Emancipation Proclamation–Burns writes about the anguish of a Senegalese leaving his home on a slave ship for the shores of Virginia.  It is not the politics that are most important here (although they are important) it is the humanizing of a black man in 1792, the compassion and empathy for the slave’s lot. One can feel the slave’s weariness. One can feel his “bitter tear.”

The Slave’s Lament

It was in sweet Senegal that my foes did me enthral,
For the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
Torn from that lovely shore, and must never see it more;
And alas! I am weary, weary O.

All on that charming coast is no bitter snow and frost,
Like the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O:
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
There streams for ever flow, and there flowers for ever blow,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

The burden I must bear, while the cruel scourge I fear,
In the lands of Virginia,-ginia, O;
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:
And I think on friends most dear, with the bitter, bitter tear,
And alas! I am weary, weary O:

But for me, it is the love poems that stand out. While some here in the 21st century might bash his promiscuity,  I see it as his inordinate zeal and love of life. I believe the truth of his love poems–they are not simply lines to bed a willing lass–and I see them as some of the tenderest poems ever written. Here is one in which he has been played false…and his heart is breaking:

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon

Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fair!
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae fu’ o’ care!

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird
That sings upon the bough;
Thou minds me o’ the happy days
When my fause Luve was true.

Thou’ll break my heart, thou bonnie bird
That sings beside thy mate;
For sae I sat, and sae I sang,
And wist na o’ my fate.

Aft hae I roved by bonnie Doon
To see the woodbine twine,
And ilka bird sang o’ its love;
And sae did I o’ mine.

Wi’ lightsome heart I pu’d a rose
Frae aff its thorny tree;
And my fause luver staw the rose,
But left the thorn wi’ me.

From a boy in trouble in a friend’s school, to a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid, to Robert Burns, to my dad.  The mind shifts easily from one thing to another. This is not a scholarly piece–my dad would find no worth in that–but a post about things I love and loved.

My father outside a pub in Dublin