It is not a criticism that can be made of Alan Warner's latest novel, The Deadman's Pedal. In it, trains, and the men who run them, are as crucial as they are in Buchan's The Thirty-Nine Steps and Agatha Christie's 4.50 From Paddington.
Apart from its opening chapter, Warner's book is set in 1973 and 1974, when Britain was politically in ferment. Industrial relations – not a phrase one hears uttered much these days – between government and the unions were dire, with Edward Heath's Tory government going out of its way to provoke confrontation between the miners, led by the likes of Joe Gormley and Mick McGahey.
For readers of a certain age, such names will evoke contradictory memories. The contrast between the patrician prime minister and his gravel-voiced adversaries could hardly have been more pronounced. It was the time, too, of the Troubles and of a rise in the fortunes of Scottish Nationalism. To all of which Warner, one of the most intelligent of contemporary novelists, pays heed.
To that extent, then, The Deadman's Pedal is concerned with politics and how the country is run and who is in charge. Is it the effing and blinding workers who make the nationalised railway function or the bosses who would like to break them? In hindsight, which Warner is careful to avoid, we know the answer but in the era of the three-day week, revolution did not seem as fanciful as it does now.
We are, it is perhaps needless to point out, back in Oban, Warner's home town. Here, however, it is wafer-thinly disguised as the Port, a town which has woefully few sheltered places in which winching teenagers can couple like engines to wagons. At the heart of the novel is Simon Crimmons, who is 16 years old. His father is a road haulier who owns 10 lorries and a big house with a loch view.
By the standards of many of his friends, Simon's background is well-to-do. Politically, his father says he is "not not" a Tory, which is a fine distinction which Simon himself will adopt when he is asked to join a strike. He is a clever, sensitive boy who abhors violence and reads the kind of books Warner himself probably gobbled up. Taken under the wing of Alexander Bultitude, the Port's answer to Sebastian Flyte, he is pointed in the direction of Herman Hesse, Gunter Grass and Jean Genet.
Thus Warner adroitly positions Simon in the middle of a divided society. Indeed, he himself is divided. He is clearly clever enough to go to university but is adamant that he wants to leave school early and get a job. Applying for a job as a "traction trainee", which he thinks has something to do with broken limbs and will put him close to nurses, he learns initially to his chagrin that he is destined for the railways, which seems to be run by sour, old men.
Not the least of Warner's gifts is his comic touch. Much of The Deadman's Pedal is related in dialogue. It is one of the several strengths of this fine book, though at times it borders, inevitably, on the banal. Few writers are as good at Warner at catching the utter inanity and coarseness of teenagers. Here, however, he shows that grown men, whatever their background, are also capable of filling silence with oral silage. Wearying as it sometimes gets, it is never less than accurate.
Simon's introduction to trains is a timetabled rite of passage. He is changing and so is the world around him. He starts going out with Nikki, who is as eager as he is to have sex. For their first date, he takes her to the "flicks" where he plies her with Maltesers (a smart move) though she finds the double-bill of war films unappealing. Unlike him, however, she is determined to stay on at school but a bout of glandular fever endangers exam success. Simon, meanwhile, is increasingly smitten by Varie, Alexander Bultitude's equine-obsessed sister. Thus he – a scion of the middle-classes – is torn between working-class and upper-class girls.
It is the story so far of Simon's life, a middling boy trying to position himself in a society still dominated by class. It is an old theme but one that Warner injects with new energy and original impetus. In other hands, the temptation to indulge in nostalgia and a surfeit of contemporary references might have proved irresistible. But in Warner's a near-perfect balance is achieved, demonstrating that he – like his hero – is a fluent reader of situations.
Above all though, it is the prose that transforms this novel, giving it heft and poise and, ultimately, a certain kind of beauty. It is also a work of great maturity. One scene, for example, in which there is a wake for a railwayman, could have been written by Joyce in his Dubliners phase. It is an occasion that demands platitudes and sentimentality, and Warner serves both up, but the effect is otherwise and illuminating, the dropping of a cigarette butt behind a fireguard in the front room of a council house effortlessly echoing days now gone when to make a train move you had to shovel coal into its blazing belly.