Kirsty Gunn: Be warned Stagecoach, you may end up in my next novel

A Virgin (and Stagecoach) train crosses the bridge leading to Berwick Upon Tweed.
A Virgin (and Stagecoach) train crosses the bridge leading to Berwick Upon Tweed.
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I am in London this week for something called “The Faber Social”. I say “something” because Faber Socials are hard to pin down. I’ve been to them before and they’re great fun – a bunch of writers and musicians getting together with readers and book lovers to have a night of words and music, all brought together by the publishing house Faber and Faber’s Lee Brackstone.

But they’re hard to describe, exactly. Not so much literary salons – though they are – as a night in the basement of a pub. Not so much a bar scene – though for sure it is, with it being dark and having to shout and gin and tonics that come in jars – as a meeting of minds.

A Faber Social “creates an environment not according to commercial impulse but rather as a measure of taste and reflection of the zeitgeist”, says Lee, “more in the spirit of a late 50s Beat happening than anything”.

Lee is also my editor at Fabers, with a terrific understanding for and interest in fiction that doesn’t fit any kind of rubric; books don’t come out of and have never been in any sort of ‘hat’. He’s been with the company for a long time – ever since my second novel was published back at the beginning of the century.

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“Featherstone” was set in a sort of mythical village that was part Perthshire, where I was living, and part rural New Zealand where my mother’s family were from, and where I’d spent time as a child. And Lee saw from the start that my books were always going to have that strange here-and-there quality to them, where the places that they were set were both known and real but also imagined.

It’s an idea Muriel Spark, a kind of goddess of inspiration to me, plays around with in her work all the time. Her Edinburgh and London are known … but they are also somehow “other”. My new novel, on Lee’s “Social” programme this month, is called “Caroline’s Bikini”. I thought it was time, like Spark decided, to have London in a novel. My last was set in Sutherland and was about piobaireachd and a family who had lived in the same house for generations. So

this time round I thought I’d do something completely different and write about a man who comes back to the UK from America and becomes a lodger in a house in Richmond. Evan Gordonston, in “Caroline’s Bikini”, though, yes, he is Scottish, could not be more different from my Sutherland family in “The Big Music”. I’ve always loved the way Muriel Spark, just like Virginia Woolf, made each novel different from the last. What a great way for the writer, and reader, for that matter, to retain interest in the work.

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“That’s the thing about Muriel,” Alan Taylor, Spark’s great friend and biographer, told me, when we were last talking about her, which, at the moment, with her centenary celebrations kicking off, is all the time. “She was always wanting to experiment with what the novel was about,” said Alan. “She was endlessly curious.”

Well, Hallelujah. Because being endlessly curious is a fabulous way to be. And writing different kinds of novels is an intellectually alert, dangerous and exciting thing to do, teaching us all kinds of things – writers and readers, both – about how the world might be configured. That’s what books should do. Shift the landscape a bit. Change our perspective. They’re not there, novels, to confirm ideas of society and how we behave. Or at least not to my mind. They may do

that, of course, but they might also show us how to challenge the status quo by giving us strange and intriguing and surprising worlds.

We should be always pushing ourselves “out of our comfort zone” to use that phrase everyone’s so fond of now. We should want to ask the questions – What? How? Why? Right now I’d like to write a novel about the trains between London and Scotland and pose some questions there. Like: How come Stagecoach are being let off their obligations to run a service that, in the past, before they took over, was so good – with fair fares, great timetables, a decent booking system that meant there was never any overcrowding, and the sort of committed dedicated staff who, because they were being treated decently by their employers, were top of their game as far as staff-customer relations and on-board service were concerned. Not that staff made to wear their fake Virgin kit now (I say “fake” because the Virgin “branding” of Stagecoach on the North East line was such a PR stitch up; everyone knows Virgin only had a tiny stake in the company) aren’t courteous and thoughtful and brilliant, actually. But they are having a horrible time, with job cuts and re-deployment of staff. Who ever heard of a “Train Manager”? That’s just a marketing cover-up for the fact that there are not enough staff available to manage behavioural and health issues that may arise in transit. How can one “Train Manager” be expected to be everywhere all at once on a huge train hurtling at 125 mph between London and Aberdeen and Inverness? It’s

frightening to think about, as well as unfair.

And now Stagecoach is being allowed to wriggle out of a deal they made promises on and haven’t delivered. We teach children that that’s not okay! Why should it be so for old Sir Brian Souter? People of Scotland, let us light candles

and pray prayers that he won’t get his hands on Scotrail! I’m on Scotrail all the time and it’s brilliant.

I wish I’d written all of this into “Caroline’ Bikini” but as it was, I had my hands full with fitting a pool party with cocktails and a Scottish banker into a garden in West London. The next novel might see me activating rail travel as a theme, though, and setting fireworks and stands of whisky all the way along the line between Waverley and Georgemas Junction. Whatever it takes to keep us thinking about what’s important in life, not what business interests tell us is so.