It’s back to the Port and the Back Settlement, racing through the Pass on the railway – readers familiar with Warner’s Morvern Callar, The Sopranos, The Man Who Walks, These Demented Lands or The Stars In The Bright Sky will spot in The Deadman’s Pedal both places and characters long familiar (though the Mantrap sadly only gets a passing mention and there’s no Creeping Jesus in sight). Rewinding to pre-Morvern days, Warner’s latest sets us down in the early seventies, when young Simon Crimmons, against his father’s wishes, has accepted a job as a trainee driver on the railway line alongside Red Hannan (presumably Morvern’s eventual foster-father, though he’s Red Hanna there to the best of my recollection, as I’ve loaned out the book itself), Coll, John Penalty and the rest. Simon’s left school early and taken up with Nikki Caine, a gorgeous young girl from his former English class, but he’s actually hankering after Varie Bultitude, daughter of Andrew Bultitude, a village-flooding toff, and sister of Alexander, a long-haired, paranoid, girl-shy eccentric – and new friend of Simon’s. Phew. Alongside Simon’s meanderings are the politics of British Rail, workers’ rights and the Miners’ Strike; a coterie of aging train drivers, afraid they won’t make retirement, seeing out the last days of the railway as the lorries take over. So Simon’s an unlikely convert: a witness to the sad decrepitude of a dying industry in a quiet backwater, stirred by furious union agitation.
So it’s a busy novel. Like The Sopranos, The Deadman’s Pedal tracks more than one narrative, with a single place-marking character (Simon/Fionnuala) linking them all up. The fate of the railway – the fate of John Penalty – is probably the most interesting strand, and it’s not a theme I’ve seen often explored in fiction. The idiolect of the train workers is fascinating – Warner himself worked on the railways at one point, or so I’ve read – and Warner’s description of the land as seen (and heard and felt) from the locomotives gives us a new perspective on a landscape he’s laid out for us many times before, but which hasn’t yet gotten tired. The issue of Scottish independence is tossed around, without getting didactic, and the tangential exposure of Simon et al to the strikes and to Edward Heath’s politics is really deftly handled; by the time the plot has unfolded – and Warner ties up the strands more neatly than you’d almost expect, given the pretty fragmentary state of affairs at the novel’s opening – I flicked immediately back to the opening chapters to reassess the characters’ politics in light of how it all panned out. As usual, Warner manages, in the midst of an almost cacophonous cast, to create distinct voices and personalities that go beyond simple tokens (the Englishman, the Tory). Rather than characters like Red Hannan appearing as Communist mouthpieces – or as simple familiar hooks for fans of the writer’s earlier work – Warner has fleshed them out: this is Hannan’s story as much as it is Simon’s, in so far as it’s part of the story of Scottish and British industrial history. And, of course, it’s yet another instalment in the expansive narrative of Warner’s never-named Port and its environs.
As well as the politics, then, there’s the more straightforward story of Simon’s sexual awakening, first with Nikki and later with Varie – The Deadman’s Pedal is, in its way, a fairly clear-cut coming-of-age story. Simon figures out his affections as he figures out his politics: awkwardly but strongly. It’s a political, class-ridden love-story and a comedy with a very surreal edge (think horse allergies and snogging). And there’s the general atmospheric weirdness of Warner’s setting; the Bultitudes with their glass graves, the odd Victoriana of a decaying mansion at the edge of the vast hinterlands beyond a lonely settlement. Though the teen sections are most obviously like The Sopranos than any of his other work – sex and fags and booze – it was These Demented Lands that came to my mind more often – the Bultitudes in their awful, crazy isolation might as well have lived on thatIsland.
Any Cop?: Though there’s obviously a lot for the fans here (names to check, geography to rediscover), you could easily come at it fresh – much more so than with These Demented Lands. I’ll always recommend a Warner. His prose is one of a kind and his Scotland is brutal and beautiful. I’d go for Morvern or The Sopranos first, but I wonder if that’s just my own nostalgia for a couple of early loves. This is an excellent book; it’ll make you want to ride the trains, one foot on the Pedal.