THREE pints into the interview, I ask Alan Warner when he first started thinking of himself as a writer. “I still don’t,” he replies. “Oh, I know, it sounds disingenuous, but it’s true.”
There aren’t too many moments when I feel a dismissive, Paxmanesque “Oh, come on” rising in my throat, but here is one of them, in Edinburgh’s Bow Bar on a rainy Monday afternoon. Across the table from me, face silhouetted against the frosted glass, is a man who has been writing full-time for 18 years. Profitably too: how many other Scottish writers would know what a half-million pound film rights cheque looks like? Jeez, he’s even told me that he used to put “Author” on his passport when they used to ask what your occupation was.
“No, I don’t mean to be pretentious,” he adds. “I know I’m known as a writer, but I don’t feel like one. A reader, yes, always a reader. Always.”
If you read Warner’s seventh and latest novel, The Deadman’s Pedal, you might also find yourself wondering how he first became a writer – not least because it is set in his home town and features a teenage central character, whose first job is on the railways (as Warner’s was) and who is also becoming fascinated by literature.
Yet Simon Crimmon, whom we first meet as a 15-year-old on his last day of school, is not, Warner insists, a portrait of the artist as a young man. “He is a much nicer guy than I was at that age. I was a lot more trouble, more sparky; he is far more level-headed, and has more of a moral compass.” The setting, too, is different: not the Eighties Oban Warner knew in his late teens but a decade earlier.
All the same, this is the novel that reaches back the furthest into Warner’s own life. He first started thinking about it when he was 21, a full five years before he began writing his Somerset Maugham award-winning debut novel, Morvern Callar. This is also the first time he has written about working on the railways, as he did after leaving Oban High School, aged 16.
He remembers its first, false start quite clearly. “It was 1985 and I had been reading James Kelman’s The Busconductor Hines. The reason great writers are great is that they make complex things look simple, so when I read that I thought, ‘Oh this is all you do, you just explain your job’. So I remember sitting on the pier talking and then going back to my bedroom and starting to write. ‘I’m off to work for an early shift,’ I began, and it went on and on. But by page 35 I hadn’t even got him out of the bedroom, and I realised this is a lot more difficult than I had thought.”
Was that the moment he became this thing he still is reluctant to call himself – a writer? Was that when he started – as with Morvern Callar, as with The Sopranos, working out how to delineate those changeable, inconstant beats of a young life still to set its course? And how did it happen, to a teenager growing up in Oban without any of the usual first footholds on a literary career – no inspirational teacher, no mentor, no parental expectations, and such an ignorance of Scottish writing that when, as a 17-year-old, his best friend told him that some guy in Glasgow had just published this supposed-to-be-amazing book called Lanark, he asked him, in all seriousness, “Is there an actual writer in Scotland writing books today?”.
“I wasn’t being facetious, I genuinely had no concept of a contemporary literature. And he said to me, ‘Aye man, there’s a poet lives in this town, Iain Crichton Smith. He used to teach at the High School, though he’s retired now.’ So I went to my sister and said, ‘Have you ever heard of this guy Iain Crichton Smith?’ and she said, ‘Yeah he taught me at school’, and I said, ‘Is it true, he has written books and that?’ And she said, ‘Yeah, he’s a poet.’ And that was me off to the library …”
By then, Warner had already left school. His parents, who ran the Marine Hotel – a rare Scottish Art Deco hotel, hard by the Oban ferry terminal – had been disappointed to see him take up a blue-collar job as a trainee shunter on the railways. But they had left school themselves at 14 and had never pushed him towards the academic education he took up only in his his early twenties. They had worked hard all their lives – a coal delivery business in Mull, a shop in Kilchoan, a 12-bedroom travelling salesmen’s hotel with attached public bar in Oban, before buying the 42-bedroom Marine in 1963. But they didn’t have any clear idea what they wanted their son to be, and at 16, neither did he. A job on the railway seemed as good as any while he worked his way through his rebellious teens. His mother was 41 when he was born; his father, 45. The Marine Hotel had been good to them: their house in Connell had two cars in the drive – almost unheard-of in 1970s Oban – and one of them was his father’s white Jag. But by the time their son was 18, they had decided to sell up and move to retire to Spain.
“If they had been a decade younger,” says Warner, “there was no question but that I would have taken over the hotel. I probably would have never written a word.”
His Yorkshire-born father had been a sergeant-major in the Second World War. “He was a tough guy. I’m not. He was never violent or aggressive in the home at all, but he had a frightful temper. I do too, although I have learned to control it. You get about nine chances with me, but my dad had a very short fuse.”
One of the novel’s many bravura set pieces is a scene in which Simon’s father, the manager of a road haulage business, is insulted by an apprentice. Ordering him outside, he slowly takes off his cardigan and carefully folds it, removes his lower dentures with studied calm and squares up for a fight, raising his fists in the classic pugilistic stance. The younger man tries a karate kick, flummoxed by the older man’s calmness and deliberation. Too late, he realises he is in for a savage beating from a man who knows all too well how to fight. Simon, watching, weeps in fear.
Was that a scene drawn from life? “I was younger than Simon, about 11 or 12, and it was at the back of the hotel, not in a trucking company, but it was absolutely true. All the staff went out to the back of the hotel after this guy had answered back to my father. He had this tragic, old-style boxing stance and I thought he was just going to get kicked in the balls. And yes, I was absolutely traumatised by watching that fight.”
At last year’s Edinburgh book festival, Warner read out a scene from the novel in which Simon’s father watches helplessly while comrades who have fought their way up through Italy in the Second World War drown helplessly in an overturned armoured car after liberating a village. Again, drawn from life, as is Simon’s father’s lack of concern about the medals he was awarded for heroism.
“I knew all about the medals, but in the 1980s I was very left-wing, very CND and anti-war. Then I started to realise that all those guys didn’t ask to fight in a war. All that stuff influenced me a lot more than most people in my generation just because their parents were mostly 15 years younger.”
Many writers resent such reductive mining of their lives to extract the core ore of their fiction, and it is easy to see why. Certainly Simon Crimmon isn’t Alan Warner, just as Simon’s fictional father isn’t hotelier Frank Warner, and Oban isn’t – or not completely – the Port, setting for nearly all of Warner’s fiction. Certainly, too, all the reasons Warner’s novel works so well – his individualistic powers of description, pitch-perfect dialogue, and uncanny characterisation – have nothing to do with merely mirroring the family photograph album or echoing family lore.
All the same, The Deadman’s Pedal deals with Simon’s job on the railways in such sharp focus that one cannot help but wonder around which shards of reality Warner’s imagination accreted. They might even – who knows? – cast light on why he became a writer in the first place.
The novel has wider ambitions than merely showing Simon’s rites of passage: ultimately, Warner hopes, it will open up to be a trilogy charting post-war Scotland’s political and economic deracination. At the start, in the 1970s, a collectivist ethic still prevails: the Second World War casts a receding shadow, the railways remain nationalised, union-dominated and a plentiful (possibly too plentiful?) source of jobs.
But change is coming. “That’s why I made Simon’s father a haulage owner, so that as the Eighties come in, I could explore more of that conflict. Imagine if all that freight was still on the railways. Even in Oban in the 1980s, you had nine tanks of diesel come up on the railways a week, all of Boots’ supplies and half of what went into the supermarkets, even though all of the fresh veg was coming up by lorry even then. People these days say, ‘change your lightbulbs, save the world.’ Well, the world was screwed up when freight came off the railways. Now it’s all stuck on the M25 and around Birmingham. When I joined the railways, there was already the sense from the older guys that I had missed the golden days, that this wasn’t a real railway, just a play-railway.
“And they were right. They were talking about a nationally owned asset, tens of thousands of employees, coal trains going into Oban with 20 trucks of coal, fish coming out. All of the wealth of the country was dependent on the railways.”
Even as an 11-year-old, he had heard stories about that golden age, when steam engines pounded up the tracks from Glasgow, about their heroic drivers and the dramas that filled their working lives. Unlike many writers, Warner doesn’t shy away from the topic of work, but writes about it with unabashed lyricism:
“The drum of a bridge beneath him, the brush of a bush that hadn’t been cut back. When Simon closed his eyes, he could have held out each arm like a night bird, flying over the lands to and from the outlying station… When he opened his eyes minutes later, he knew exactly where he was, in what field or waste – the lone spangle of some distant dwelling’s porch told him everything. The speckled frost of trackside hawthorn blossoms blushed out like a conference of ghosts in the black sweep ahead.”
By now, Simon is in love. There is Nikki, his classmate with whom he loses his virginity, and his bohemian friend’s darkly glamorous and aristocratic sister Varie, and both relationships are exquisitely realised. But so too are his friendships with the older, jaded colleagues on the railway.
This emotionally complex mixture – one minute pure Kelman, the next Alain-Fournier – gives the novel an irresistible, satisfying richness.
So where, finally, does a writer like that start out? He has talked before about wandering into John Menzies at the age of 15 and buying three novels – The Graduate, The Immoralist and The Outsider, purely because their jackets seemed to offer the promise of sex within. But other 15-year-olds could have done exactly the same without ever their lives jumping the tracks towards a career as a writer. There must have been something else, surely?
“Well,” he says, “there is another reason, and I probably downplay it because it is so easy to dramatise things. After Menzies, I started to hang around in the second-hand charity shops. I started to buy those Penguin Classics in an utterly random way at 20p or 30p a time and I would set them on the shelves of my bedroom with their black spines and the duck-egg grey of the Modern Classics. And I’d just sit down and read them one after the other.
“I struggled with them. Thomas Mann, Gide, Lives of the Saints, Nietzsche, The Upanishads, Herman Hesse. There was no canon, no concept of self-education, no progression, just a merciless devouring of random volumes, one after the other.
“I didn’t read the TLS, didn’t read book reviews, didn’t read anything about the literary world: there was no intermediary. But there was a massive purity to it. And the more I look back, the more I realise that formed me, going from book to book and entering into the other worlds that each one of them takes you to.
“And that still affects my attitude to literature. It’s nothing to do with London, or publishing, or all the ephemera that ends up surrounding you as a writer. It’s not about that. That pure and simple experience of reading is all that matters – everything else is bollocks. And there’s something wonderful about being that age and all of those worlds opening up to you.”
• The Deadman’s Pedal, by Alan Warner, is published by Jonathan Cape, price £16.99