Alan Warner: Imagining Scotland

As he publishes his new novel Their Lips Talk of Mischief, Alan Warner – one of Scotland's greatest living authors – talks candidly of referendum, ageing and critics. And as is only relevant, books, of course

Feature by Angus Sutherland | 02 Sep 2014
  • Alan Warner

It’s just shy of a month until Scotland’s most profound democratic instant, Edinburgh’s Parliament building is less than a hundred metres away, and Alan Warner is duly, obligingly making the case for independence. While a lot of Yes-ers are at pains to deny or conceal any sense of bitterness, Warner is less squeamish. He’s not afraid to rail against the perceived failings of UK governments past and present. "We’ve got to get away from the corrupt, Westminster bullshit that we’ve been putting up with for too long. With a few illegal wars thrown in there as well." He’s on a double espresso with plenty of milk, and he seems game for a chat about big things.

Warner’s ‘Yes’ evangelism is rooted in a time-honored, literary, Lefty political philosophy. Though he wields the phrase self-consciously, it’s social democracy he’s after for Scotland. To the question of just why so many of his writerly peers are like-minded, he is thoughtful. Very thoughtful, in fact. Warner has been teaching creative writing at The University of Edinburgh. Regarding the politics of the contemporary Scottish writer, he begins to inhabit this role. He’s didactic and charismatic.

"I think, to be a Scottish writer," he sets out, "Because we’re a small country, a small group of writers, when you become a Scottish writer, interested in Scottish literature, there’s an archaeological aspect to it." Warner then duly mines Caledonia’s literary history for all its worth. He places himself at the sharp end of a centuries-old trajectory, sketching it all the way back to William Dunbar in the 15th Century. In between, Warner places Burns, Gaelic poets Alasdair mac Mhaighstir Alasdair and Duncan Ban Macintyre, Hugh MacDiarmid, Edwin Muir, Alasdair Gray and James Kelman. It’s a formidable line-up. It’s also notable for its undiluted maleness. Given that Warner made his name writing compelling female protagonists, from Morvern Callar to The Sopranos and their sequels, it’s a surprise that no woman writers appear in his brief, annotated history of Scottish literature.

It’s Kelman who he singles out in making the writer’s case for independence. His 1994 Booker Prize winning How Late It Was, How Late continues to divide opinion south of the border. One dissenting member of the Booker panel branded it disgraceful and crap; more recently, it’s been celebrated as one of the prize’s most deserving winners. Warner remembers another critic, Mark Lawson’s response, not for its qualitative assessment, but rather for its inaccuracy. "He thought it was written in the first person. That’s primary school stuff. It wasn’t Mark’s fault. He just couldn’t work out the dialect. It’s another world."

Of course, as Warner concedes, this all doesn’t necessarily impel us to independence on its own. "What it does do, is it makes writers aware of a tradition of resistance, of a tradition of trying to preserve aspects of their culture that could, and in fact almost did, wipe out Scottishness in the late 1890s and 1880s." So independence becomes, in part, a process by which we might safeguard said culture. Warner is at pains to point out that not all Scottish writers favour a break from the UK. He mentions Allan Massie as a demurring voice. Others, worse perhaps, have yet to plump for one side or another, or are "sitting on the fence with sore balls," as Warner has it.

“That sort of Scottish, autodidact, self-improvement thing. It didn’t improve me much, I’ll tell you that! All these French novels about shagging” - Alan Warner

As Scotland undergoes a period of heightened self-examination, so too does Warner. His latest work, Their Lips Talk of Mischief, centres on young, heavy boozing writers in London. Once a young, heavy boozy writer in London himself, Warner loots the past for inspiration. Asked about his preference for young protagonists, he chalks it up to the drama of youth. He is, he confesses, a "drama queen novelist, looking for drama." But this may be his last youthful book. Warner feels that, at 50, young people, at least today’s young people, are now beyond his understanding. Thriving on cannily delivered anecdotes, Warner recalls a conversation with boys outside a head shop. They ask him to buy some legal highs on their behalf. "I didn’t know what they’re fuckin’ talking about – get you what?!" He emits a breathy, staccato laugh and mimics. "'Can you get us hoosy manoosy?' 'What?!' You lose touch with all that stuff, thank God."

Warner’s last book, The Deadman’s Pedal, was hailed for its maturity. This ascription seems to trouble him, particularly if you infer from it that his earlier work was defined by a lack of maturity. The distinction between style and content is crucial here. Though Deadman’s may have trumped Morvern Callar in terms of the maturity of its subject matter, his debut work was, Warner argues, more stylistically mature. On critics, he seems mistrustful, though they’ve been good to him over the years, for the most part. "The best backhanded comment I’ve ever heard was from Germaine Greer, who reviewed one of my novels, The Man Who Walks, on the telly. And Germaine said," and here he lightens and softens his voice just a touch, "'This man will write a great book. This isn’t it.'" Out nips another of his airy, propulsive chuckles. "I thought, I’ve got to hand it to her, it’s a beauty!"

Warner has a desperate love of books. Though it may seem obvious or even trite to mention – he’s an author, after all – it’s central to an understanding of the man. Accounts of Warner, particularly those chronicling his early career, tout his fondness for a drink. He’s hardly coy about it in person. But it’s when he talks about reading that his face truly glimmers. Though he has less time for it now, in the 80s he did little else, thinking, "Y’know, aye, I’ll educate myself. That sort of Scottish, autodidact, self-improvement thing. It didn’t improve me much, I’ll tell you that! All these French novels about shagging." Where his peers might have kept track of their lovers in black books, he kept a tally of his reading conquests. In 1983, he proudly reports, he clocked up a mighty 250 titles. "Never slept much and I certainly didn’t work very hard."

There’s something so pure in Warner’s reverence of the written word. At times, the big charmer interviews as if he’s trotting out a series of well-worn chat-up lines. He’s rarely short of entertaining, but occasionally there’s a slight dearth of authenticity. Not so when he talks about the work of others. What he says is notable because it’s so straightforward and, at least within the community of readers, universal. "What really got me was how much books moved me." Neatly put.

Alan Warner was talking at the Edinburgh International Book Festival where he spoke on 21 Aug. Their Lips Talk of Mischief is out now, published by Faber & Faber