The Deadman’s Pedal, by Alan Warner

Purchased from the Book Depository

The rail line from the Port terminus extends 60 miles south to Glasgow. It is a spur whose time has long since passed — only the inertia of union contracts and can’t-be-bothered management keep it operating. Still, for the communities at that terminus it means paid employment for a dozen train drivers, six guards, a few ticket sellers and signal controllers. The engineers based at the Port take the trains halfway down the line to Ardencaple signal box, a thousand feet up, no station, no platform:

Drivers or secondmen pull up their diesels expertly in the dark — the cab interior is suddenly lit yellowish — and the cab door opens; two men holding flasks or sandwich boxes and metal-cased torches step out onto a brief wooden platform with steep staircases and banisters — like some hastily assembled gallows. The city footplate men and their guard take the train southbound while the rural crew take the other train back up northward and west, over the familiar route.

Night driving, these northbound enginemen have full knowledge of the invisible road. There are no headlights on these diesels, so drivers move forward in a spectacular blindness through the starless dark, using trackside landmarks, platers’ huts or numbered bridges and viaducts to triangulate their location so the land exists in their minds more than to their senses. That ancient dark comes smothering close around the trains in the inhuman places.

The rail spur line supplies author Alan Warner with both the title of The Deadman’s Pedal (literally, it is a bar plate that the engineman must keep depressed — if he lets up, say by dying, the engine immediately stops and the train comes to a halt) and one of his story lines. Running the trains between the Port terminus and Glasgow gives him the opportunity to describe that part of the Scottish landscape; keeping them running is a community of working-class, unionized under-achievers whom Warner takes some delight in bringing to life.

He does that through dialogue and that is one of Warner’s major strengths — his only previous novel that I have read, The Stars in the Bright Sky, was an excellent illustration of that talent which left me looking forward to this novel. Longlisted for the 2010 Booker Prize, it told the unlikely story of a collection of Scot’s lassies stranded at Gatwick Airport on their way to a girls’ getaway weekend.

A second story line offers the author a different opportunity for dialogue: the central character of the novel, Simon, has just finished fifth-year school and is contemplating his future. Here are the opening paragraphs of what turns into a multi-page exchange with his mate, Andy Galbraith:

‘I’m leaving, Galbraith. I’m telling you. [...] I can work with my old man any time I want to. ‘

‘Aye, aye. That’ll be right; flushing the trailers with a hose but you can’t drive a lorry till you’re eighteen.’

‘I drive lorries all the time.’

‘Aye. Round and round your old man’s garage like the dodgems; you got up to over five mile an hour yet?’ Galbraith laughed and made the strange animal sound of his. Simon noted how big and loose the shoulders of Galbraith’s school blazer still were — bought for another year’s use yet.

Galbraith said, ‘Check it out man. Nikki Caine’s down the gates there, yah jammy bass. Bet it’s you she’s waited on too. Fucking fancies you like anything, man.’

Indeed Nikki and Simon fancy each other, even though she lives in the council flats and he is the son of the town’s leading entrepreneur (his father now has ten lorries in his firm, competition for the struggling railway line). Simon has even taken Nikki up to the cave and promontory that is Simon and Galbraith’s secret hideaway.

At the early stage in the novel where this conversation takes place, Warner has already used a flashback to introduce another element that will form his third story thread: more than a decade earlier the Queen herself came to the area to name Andrew Bultitude, master of the Broken Moan estate, as the Commander of the Pass. Simon has struck up a friendship with the son of ‘the doomed family’ and through him meets the intriguing, disturbed and attractive Varie Bultitude — he soon finds himself in a teenage love-torn conflict between lower class Nikki, her worldly sister Karen and the landed aristocrat Varie.

Forbidding landscape, imprisoning class and painfully growing into maturity — those are the elements in which Warner grounds his story. Simon does decide to leave school and applies for a job as a Traction Trainee, thinking it is work at the hospital (you know, for people with broken legs) where Nikki’s older sister is a nurse but it turns out to be a train driver apprenticeship on the railway. He gets the job and, to his father’s dismay, becomes the sole member of a new generation in a working-class community of “waiting for retirement” railroaders.

The Deadman’s Pedal is not a weighty novel — mainly it is the story of how Simon struggles to adapt to the conflicts that are inherent in each of those three story threads. Warner uses that structure to develop a series of set pieces and, to his credit, delivers on most of them. The result is not so much a coming-of-age story as it is a series of observations, viewed through a young man’s eyes, on a world that time has temporarily left behind — rest assured, reality intrudes as the book moves along.

Reviews elsewhere had touted The Deadman’s Pedal as a candidate for this year’s Booker longlist; I picked it up on that basis, coupled with a grudging appreciation of The Stars in the Bright Sky, a novel that succeeded more often that it failed. I have known a few train engineers in my time, so that aspect interested me (and I wasn’t disappointed with that thread). The novel didn’t make the longlist and I can’t say I am surprised — despite that, it was a worthwhile read. Warner creates an interesting cast of very human characters and does a good job of portraying the isolated community that is their world — The Deadman’s Pedal may not be an ambitious novel, but it is a successful one.

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9 Responses to “The Deadman’s Pedal, by Alan Warner”

  1. Max Cairnduff Says:

    This sounds very much like a novel I’d enjoy, but not one that leaps out for immediate reading. It’s sometihing I’ll add to a list, and perhaps read when I want something light but well written (and of course there are always such times).

    The language of the quotes is good, and the dialogue sounds true. Important things for a novel of this sort, which after all must live or die by the evocation of place and capturing of speech.

    I do like the idea of getting a job, a career, through a misapprehension of what you’re applying for. It sounds strangely credible. Stupid enough to have the ring of truth.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I would recommend this novel for you — as you might intuit, one of the underlying themes is about making choices. And given your background, I think you would find the options that face Simon to be quite interesting. I was delighted when he took up train driving :-) because it brought back memories of many friends.

    Warner is good with words and that does show through on every page — I think he has an excellent novel waiting inside him. This might not be it but it is close. In the final analysis, I think this book is meant more for readers who appreciate an author who knows what he does best and then puts that into practice. I was enrolled with Simon (and his challenges) from the start — I think if you find time for this book you will have a similar response.

  3. Guy Savage Says:

    This one is on my list kevin as I have a thing for trains.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Guy: Well, since you have a thing for trains, I admit I actually played that angle down a bit in the review — there is some great inside-the-cab action. And it would have taken me just too many words to provide an example of the trainmen’s dialogue which includes an hilarious union meeting that was a highlight of the book for me.

  5. David Says:

    Great review, Kevin. I absolutely loved this book – one of my favourites of the year so far. I just thought there was so much going on in it to enjoy, not just the coming-of-age aspects or the wonderfully realised characters. To me it seemed a novel rich with metaphor too, from the deadman’s pedal of the title to the railway itself: a journey yes, but a circular one that is fixed and unchanging, yet for all that the driver’s have to be able to drive it almost with their eyes closed it isn’t entirely predictable – there is always the possibility of something unexpected lurking in the dark.

    And then there was all the stuff about signals and signs: lights on the railway, Varie’s occultism, Alex’s letters left in the books, the ‘graffiti’ on the inside of the leather token rings, the angel on the track before the landslide. And about history and the past: Simon’s father (literally) burying his; Varie’s and Alex’s ever-present in the house with the glass graves and the letter from Waterloo; John Penalty harking back to the steam train; Simon’s mother still feeling confined by her farming upbringing; Varie trying to contact the dead and the dead ‘rising’ in the landslide to assert themselves just as Varie’s father uses his family history to assert his position. But letting go of the past too – at his interview Simon has to prove he is strong enough to lift the coupling, something he has to do for real later on in the big set piece scene to release the doomed engine: is he strong enough to let go of everything behind him that could drag him down?
    There also seemed to be a theme going on about windows – views from them (obscured or not), the glass graves, windows that are climbed through both literally (Nikki’s bedroom and the train engine’s) and metaphorically (between Simon’s father’s world and that of the railway; between Simon’s class and Varie’s).

    I hadn’t read anything by Warner before – I’d just never fancied the sound of his books – but I’m thrilled that this is supposed to be the first in a trilogy.

  6. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Thanks Kevin, with that recommendation I’ll definitely add it to the list. It sounds anyway like a good first Warner.

  7. KevinfromCanada Says:

    David: Thanks for bringing up so many of the set pieces that I was too lazy to include in my review :-) . Actually, your excellent list illustrates what my conundrum was: once you bring up one, you have to bring up a bunch (ditto with the symbolism). I’d already faced that problem with the dialogue — even that is hard to illustrate because Warner doesn’t just use snippets he likes long conversations. Or, as in the case of the union meeting (one of my favorite set pieces), non-conversations.

    From one point of view, the world at the Port terminus is quite small and self-contained — what the novel does very well is show how full and active it is (with both the good and the bad) for those who are living there. That’s why so many of them came alive as characters and I am sure will remain on in memory.

    And I had not read that this was the start of a trilogy — I would certainly welcome hooking up with this bunch again.

  8. Rowena E Says:

    Have you read ‘The Art of the Engine Driver’ by Steven Carroll? It is an excellent book that is also a portrait of the dreams of a group of people in Melbourne living in a new suburb in the fifties. Well worth reading, and also train related

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rowena: I have not heard of that novel or author — and it sounds appealing. Thanks for drawing it to my attention.

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