The Fall of Kelvin Walker

The Fall of Kelvin Walker was the novel (novella really) which followed Alasdair Gray’s two great novels of the eighties, Lanark and 1982, Janine, and his first collection of stories, Unlikely Stories, Mostly. Gray, however, did not see himself primarily as a writer of fiction, and, though he published regularly, was never prolific and would have periods where he would be uncertain if he would write another novel. Short of inspiration, he turned to his earlier dramatic work, plays which were broadcast on the radio in the 1960s and, in the case of The Fall of Kelvin Walker, the television. (He would later also turn McGrotty and Ludmilla into a short novel, and cannibalise his dramatic work to create his final novel Old Men in Love). In a sense then, The Fall of Kelvin Walker, republished this month by Canongate, was already out of date on publication in 1985, set as it was in the sixties (it is subtitled ‘a fable of the sixties’) and based on Gray’s own experience of travelling to London to make a documentary in 1964. Reading it now, almost fifty years on, it remains an entertaining curio, but retains some of its bite in its portrayal of its central character’s rise and fall as a media star.

Kelvin Walker is a young man who has left his home town of Glaik (from the Scots for stupid, glaikit) in Scotland for success in London. To this end the chapters are titled as if from the account of a colonial explorer (The Discovery of London, A Meal with a Native…). Despite having little in the way of qualifications, having left school at fifteen and only ever worked in his father’s grocery shop, Kelvin is determined to start at the top – or, at least, as near as he can get to it. As he explains, when it is suggested that he needs to start at the bottom:

“That’s not true!… Nowadays the ladders are so long that the folk who start at the bottom have to retire before reaching the middle. Nearly all the people at the top started climbing a few rungs under it.”

Kelvin is both unshakeably confident and irredeemably innocent. He befriends a young woman, Jill, in a café by asking her, “Do you mind if I engage you in conversation?” Soon he offers to take her to the “most expensive eating place in London” only to discover (too late) that the meal costs more than he has (around £450 in today’s money). And so he ends up staying with Jill and her artist boyfriend, Jake, while he commences on his plan to gain interviews for prestigious positions by pretending to be Hector McKellar, a fellow Glaiker (?) who is now an important man at the BBC. Of course, as soon as his dishonesty is discovered, most companies will simply ask him to leave, but, as Kelvin explains:

“I’ll be glad to leave, for a small-minded and unimaginative employer will be no use to me at all.”

It is, in fact, MacKellar himself, who hears of the deception, who eventually offers Kelvin a job as an interviewer as:

“…the BBC is suffering just now from a dangerous personality deficiency, particularly in the field of regional dialect.”

Having those in power “savagely grilled by interviewers with firm regional dialects” is what McKellar calls “the British alternative to revolution” and it is in its dissection of the BBC that novel remains its most relevant. Kelvin begins work on Power Point (Gray predating Microsoft by two years), a programme created by a BBC governor who was known as The Prevailing Consensus, the sustaining of which Kelvin discovers is the Corporation’s main mission, as he discovers, like those before him, that politicians:

“…don’t really disagree about these things – they just pretend to.”

Kelvin is an excellent interviewer and the novel follows his rising fame and the attention he then garners from powerful men. His desire for success, an endearing quality when he was naïve and powerless, becomes an end in itself, and much less endearing. Power, the novel demonstrates, does indeed corrupt.

Where the novel is less successful is in its other two strands of religion and love. Kelvin’s strict and repressive religious upbringing, from which he is liberated by reading Nietzsche, appears unusual today, in a way which makes even the novel’s wonderful final sentence appear dated. That Kelvin is unable to escape his relationship with God feels much less likely. In love, Kelvin is much like other Gray characters, a weak man infatuated with a woman who does not love him back. In this case the woman is Jill and, as she says herself, this is largely because she is the first woman he meets. The fact that Jake hits Jill makes us sympathetic to Kelvin who always treats her kindly, but Gray does not allow Jill to develop much of a character for herself – Kelvin will similarly restrict her when he is famous.

The novel is told with such wit and brio, however, that these faults can be overlooked. The Fall of Kelvin Walker may be minor Gray, but Gray is such a clever and honest writer that he is always worth reading and, as a satire of success, and an example of how the media will raise you up and then seek to bring you down again, the novel holds up well.

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2 Responses to “The Fall of Kelvin Walker”

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    It does sound entertaining Grant – apart from Lanark I’ve not read much more Gray but I do have several – must dig them out. I love the quotes here – you remind me what a good writer he is!

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