Posts Tagged ‘alan warner’

Nothing Left to Fear from Hell

June 1, 2023

With Nothing Left to Fear from Hell, Alan Warner is the latest contributor to Polygon’s Darkland Tales series, novellas which tackle some of the most famous (or perhaps infamous) episodes in Scottish history. The series has proved to be a winning combination of writer, genre and form so far, with authors unused to writing historical fiction bringing a verve and vibrancy to the shorter length which promotes depth and insight over historical sweep. With Denise Mina having opened the series with her presentation of Mary, Queen of Scots, Warner delivers another iconic Scottish figure in the shape of ‘Bonnie’ Prince Charlie, Charles Stuart, who came to Scotland in 1745 to claim the British Crown for his father, but, after some startling victories, was finally defeated at Bannockburn and forced to flee for his life. Nothing Left to Fear from Hell tells of that flight, which takes him to the islands in search of a boat to France.

Warner has described Charles as “a cross between a rock star and a Renaissance prince, with a modern vulnerability thrown in” (while adding “I don’t feel romantic or sentimental about him”), but the novel’s opening is designed to emphasise the fragile, and often graceless, humanity he shares with us all as he lands on shore discomfited by the crossing:

“Tipping his face forward from his slim neck, in a curious, not inelegant, stance, he vomited liquid, spat, then sicked up much more, along with a deep eruption of stomach wind…”

Soon, as if to say, ‘he is just a man’, he has voided his bowels and bladder, but if we fear Warner is simply set on ridicule, we are mistaken; instead, his determination seems to be to present Charles with a reality frequently missing from ballad and romance. At the same time, we are reminded of his importance by Warner’s decision to refer to him as ‘the Prince’ throughout, and by the loyalty he inspires – his bodyguard, O’Neil’s, attitude is typical:

“I am indifferent to all aspects of my fate, so long as your Royal Highness’s fate is to be at liberty.”

(Lest we see this as ‘romantic’, Warner refers more than once to the astonishing £30,000 reward placed on his head to tempt the local population to hand him in). Charles, of course, expects this loyalty, but Warner balances Charles the Prince and Charles the man throughout. In one scene, he shoots at a whale (“a monster from the deep!”) and then expects one of his companions, Neil, to swim out for it believing he has killed it. Neil is understandably reluctant but, shortly after insisting “it is a royal command,” Charles changes his mind:

“Ach, you have the truth. It lives and travels on to cross the oceans. I could have had it, though.”

(The scene also acts in miniature as a symbol of Charles’ attempt on the throne). In another incident, when one of his companions tells him he is about to have “the best cream you will taste in Scotland” and it is instead the previous day’s milk warmed, he at first insists the woman of the house be beaten, but soon relents:

“Threaten her with the deed alone, Neil, and let us forget the thing.”

We see here the humanity which lies beneath his spoilt royalty, but Warner is not afraid to show us the petulant demands first. In a similar fashion, though he is generally resilient, there are flashes of despair.

The most famous aspect of Charles’ flight is, of course, his disguise as a woman, which Warner manages to detail with a flirtatious humour as Flora MacDonald describes the clothes in which the Prince is being dressed (“Now to the gown, formed from a calico we had fortune enough to have supply of.”) The humour continues once Charles is dressed as the men venture to make comments (“I have a loose button here, Miss, if you are able”) while aware that this may be dangerous until, finally, their suppressed laughter is released.

As one might expect from Warner, the novella is beautifully written. Though not obtrusive, Warner peppers his prose with archaic words and grammar. An old woman they meet is a ‘crone’, the men themselves are ‘desperadoes’ and ‘brigands’, Charles’ presence is described as a ‘disbenefit’. Warner grew up in the Highlands, and he describes the wild landscape with the precision of a poet, particularly when it comes to the sea:

“A vapour smoke blew of the razor ridges of the biggest tumblers that appeared out of the dark before them. The boat smacked down over the tops of these glens and spilled along the far sides which became spoiled with frothing as the sea grew more demented by the wind.”

As with all historical novels, we know the history by and large – the trick is in the telling, and this is where Warner shines. He gives us a landscape we can see and feel, and populates it with characters we believe in. Immersive and insightful, the is an impressive recreation of a key moment in a man’s life, and a country’s past.

The Deadman’s Pedal

September 28, 2012

Alan Warner is a beautiful writer (I’m not referring to his looks, though he is undeniably handsome). Take, for example, this opening sentence from his latest novel The Deadman’s Pedal:

“Some stars still showed in uncertain bleats of light.”

Ignoring for a moment the intense but unshowy alliteration, the use of the word ‘bleats’ effortlessly creates the sense of the stars fading in the dawn. Later on the same page we discover:

“…the car headlamps sliding up the driveway, pushing vast, ghostly blocks of dusty light through the glossed metal fence…”

Again the description is vivid and original, and the sound (the balance of ‘ghostly blocks’ and ‘dusty light’ for example) almost hypnotic. Of course a novel written entirely in this style might prove rather tedious, but Warner also has another great talent as a writer and that is in his reproduction of everyday speech. He is particularly good (as seen in previous novels like The Sopranos) with the dialogue of adolescents (“Look. Crimmo’s getting a big huge massive brassing beamer.”) but here is equally adept at convincingly portraying the more Kelmanesque (surely a word by now) speech of the railway workers. Distinctions are clear, from the slang-laden dialogue of Andy Galbraith, to the slightly more formal speech of Simon, the novel’s protagonist, right the way through to the public school inflected Bultiudes.

Warner is without doubt a skilled craftsman and here he uses that skill to lovingly recreate a particular time and place – the north-west coast of Scotland in the 1970s, his fictional community of the Port. He’s not the first Scottish novelist to return to their roots in recent times – both Janice Galloway and John Burnside have done so in an explicitly autobiographical way. It would not be unreasonable to assume that The Deadman’s Pedal contains some autobiographical elements (and it does, though Warner would only be seven in 1973 when the novel begins), particularly given that Warner has said he began writing it prior to Morvern Callar. A number of critics have described it as Warner’s most ambitious novel to date and it certainly has a sense of history that his previous novels have eschewed: here is Britain before Thatcher, a railway line threatened with closure staffed by militant rail-workers whose ideal is to be paid while not working. That they are all so much older than Simon suggests a vanishing era. The political fights to come are echoed in Simon’s father’s displeasure at Simon’s decision to join the railways – he runs a private haulage company.

The Deadman’s Pedal is also a coming of age story as Simon not only enters the world of work but of love too. This includes a fascination with Varie Bultitude, the daughter of the local aristocracy (the novel opens with a prologue recounting the Queen’s visit to the Bultitude’s residence, Broken Moan, in 1961). Her brother, Alexander, meanwhile introduces Simon to culture in the form of stolen paperbacks and LPs. This is no doubt intended to introduce issues of class into the narrative, but seemed a little too Iain Banks, a Fitzgerald view of the rich rather than a Hemingway one.

The novel features some wonderful set-pieces (again, this has been a common response to it): sexual encounters with Nikki’s sister and later with Varie, a railwayman’s wake, and the flooded track near the end. Equally it has an impressive cast of characters, not only those already mentioned but John Penalty and on the railways, Simon’s father (there’s another great scene where he sacks one of his workers), and Bobby Forth, a fellow school leaver. However, there are times when it feels Warner is a little too in love with his characters, particularly when they are talking, and some scenes would probably have benefitted from editing. Above all, though skilfully written, the story itself can feel a little ordinary at times and certainly doesn’t resonate in the way you would expect a ‘state of the nation’ novel to. Of course, that isn’t Warner’s fault – it may simply be that the novel is not as ambitious as some have claimed.

The Stars in the Bright Sky

August 23, 2010

Alan Warner has described The Stars in the Bright Sky as “Waiting for Godot meets Coronation Street”: ordinary characters, in other words, in a surreal setting. The novel revisits the school girls of The Sopranos four years later. Orla has succumbed to leukaemia, Finn and Kay are at university, Chell and Kylah have moved in together, and Manda has had a son and is working in her sister’s hairdressers and beauty salon, a fact she never tires of reminding her friends. The girls are reunited for a holiday, meeting at Gatwick with the intention of picking up a last minute deal. This lack of a destination may seem to offer them unlimited freedom but, in keeping with the novel’s theme, it instead adds to the sense that they are waiting for choices to happen to them. Into this mix is thrown Finn’s university friend, Ava; upper class, English, rich and sophisticated, she acts both as a foil for explanations, and as another pair of eyes through which we see the girls, and they see themselves.

The first thing to say about this novel is that it is extremely funny. Most of the humour revolves around Manda who is the literary version of a black hole, sucking plot, characters and setting relentlessly towards her. Coarse, ignorant, outspoken, the other characters find her unbearable to the extent that by the end of the novel they have arranged for her to travel first class simply so they do not have to sit with her on the plane. Yet they are also frequently kind to her, agreeing for example, that none of them will go on holiday unless she finds her passport, which she has typically misplaced. The reader is similarly both attracted and repulsed: laughing with her, laughing at her, and cringing in her company. When she vomits her Guinness back into the glass, we feel the same “revulsion and delight” as the girls, nauseated but still admiring the fact it “had not filled the pint completely.” In another Guinness-related incident, when they dare Manda to run from their picnic to a nearby restaurant and drink two pints in ten minutes, we can’t help but share Ava’s view when she sees her returning, “carrying a pint of Guinness in her downhill flight…taking gulps while in swift motion” that:

“She is just…amazing.”

Manda is one of the great Scottish characters, the kind that is both archetypal and real enough to recognise: every group of friends has one. And, as Warner himself has said, “loveable for all her horror.”

The novel is more than a comedy, however. Unfortunately, any discussion of its themes is impossible without revealing aspects of the novel that those who like to become acquainted with the larger arc of the narrative personally may not want to know. (Look away now). In particular, that there is no holiday, the girls never actually flying from the airport. Warner uses the airport in a way that might be described as Ballardian (Warner famously visited Ballard unannounced at his home in Shepperton, having newly arrived in London): the novel is peppered with descriptions of it and discussions about it: the repetitiveness of the retail outlets; the differences between the hotels; the nature of the bars; the different modes of transport around it. A hub of movement, it becomes a symbol of stasis. The girls’ inability to travel is initially caused comedically by Manda’s lost passport; at the end, however, it is prevented more tragically by 9/11. (There is some dispute whether this qualifies as ‘twist’ or ‘shock’ ending.) Clearly, once the reader is half way through the novel, it becomes fairly obvious that either they will never travel or the novel will conclude with them taking off.

Their failure to travel is interesting because it can be read more than one way. On the one hand, it suggests a general inability to control their destiny experienced by many of the characters as individuals. Ava, who initially seems so confident and in control, has a drug addiction and Finn, another of the stronger characters, lives in fear of her relapsing. Most of the others remain trapped in the small town where they were born, Manda also tied by a child she did not want. Her lack of control is best symbolised by her slide down a muddy slope when pushed by Ava (perhaps foreshadowing Manda’s introduction to cocaine later):

“Manda began sliding spectacularly back down the wet hill on her arse. With her acceleration, her upper body immediately flattened, her face up to the metal sky, arms swept back behind, fingers extended in shock as she gathered speed like a toboggan sledge, feet in the air.”

In this reading, 9/11 becomes a global symbol for our inability to control our destiny. However, Manda’s attitude to her misadventure is also interesting. Instead of being angry “the occurrence had been turned into a completely positive event for her,” allowing her, as it does, to be the centre of attention again. Similarly, the girls’ time in the airport is their holiday; at no point are they bored or depressed by it. As with the novel’s title, from the school hymn book staple ‘Away in a Manger’, the message is open to interpretation:

“The stars is still there, even in the daytime. Just you can’t see them.”

Does this suggest the girls, in their small town ignorance, can’t see what’s around them, or that they can see enjoyment whether others can’t, living for the moment and simple pleasures? Some may find 400 pages in Manda’s company too many, and Warner has clearly extended the novel to emphasise their lack of travel, refusing to curtail conversations and letting them flow naturally, but others will find her entrancing – as long as they don’t have to meet her in the flesh.