Winner of the James Tait Black Prize

For 16-year-old Simon Crimmons there is not a lot to do. Going nowhere, fed up with school, he leaves to work as a driver on the trains. That summer he is introduced to a world of grown-up glamour, strikes and girlfriends. When Simon falls for the ethereal, aristocratic Varie, he finds freedom and adventure but will it be at a price? Too ‘posh’ for the railways, too ‘working class’ for Varie, Simon must navigate what it means to be a man as his world is turned upside down.

Praise for the novel:

"A delight: a boisterous, kindly, deep, sweet romp of a thing" (Scotsman)

"Absolutely beautiful... As far as I'm concerned he's emerging as the William Faulkner of British fiction: somebody who's created a body of work that has not only animated a language but a period and a place... He has this incredible talent" (Andrew O'Hagan)

"This is the best Scottish fiction since Lanark" (Scottish Review of Books)

"Morally sensitive, exquisitely written and emotionally mature" (Guardian)

"If you still haven’t read it from last year, Alan Warner’s The Deadman’s Pedal was out in paperback in this. Read it." (Janice Galloway, Scotsman)

Questions contributed by Nikki MacLellan

Q: At the beginning of the book the main character Simon has created a hiding place in The Port, where he seeks solace. However by the end he thinks "a spoiling was coming to this place". To what extent does the setting of The Port impose limitations on Simon?

Wow. That is an interesting question Nikki. I guess to a massive, if not a total extent. The Port and its environs: Tulloch Ferry where Simon lives, and the villages round about, these are his world. He doesn’t know any different but at the same time, as I think will be revealed in other questions, The Deadman’s Pedal is very much part of an ongoing plot of three linked novels, so “the spoiling” Simon talks about is complex, and slowly revealed. Simon travels down on the trains every day but then he drives the trains back again – all his travelling gets him only back to where he started. As this novel and its planned sequels open out, Simon’s limitations will broaden out. At the same time he is quite an interesting young man – he seems fair and open minded and curious about a great outer world.

Q: All of the chapters are written in a sequential/chronological order, except one. Why was this ‘skip back’ important? Did you feel this movement was essential to give a better understanding of the characters involved?

That’s another revealing question which relates back to what I was hinting at. Later on in this planned sequence of novels, the temporal structure of the book changes. As you point out, only that first chapter falls out of sequence in that in moves back from the sequential/chronological 1973/4 setting of the book ( at a time when I was only ten years old, Simon is five or six years older than me) to 1961. The reason I put an out-of-sequence chapter in, was I simply had to, as an insurance policy, so that in the next book I could start to move more easily between past and present and even future. But having a chapter out of sequence – though what went on in the chapter seemed relevant to the future – it felt like an insurance policy. I had also struggled to find how to write the book. I stick hard and fast most of the time to long, unfolding scenes with very few time and place jumps. That seemed a suicidal way to write a historical novel – but at the same time, it grounded lots of moments quite vividly, I thought, IN the time and place. Maybe history is more about essences than facts. When I write I think a lot about Time, about what time is and what it was for people in the past. The mystery of our passage through time is fascinating to me.

Q: A key moment in the novel is when Simon says "I've got the whole railway telling me I'm not working class enough and I've got you telling me I'm not middle class enough. This country needs to sort out the class question. As far as it applies to me." How significant is both the importance and the uncertainty of class to Simon as a character, and to the culture in which The Deadman’s Pedal occurs?

It’s very significant and important, but I almost feel that is a truism and want to qualify it by saying, I think it is important in terms of the plot and the story. I wanted and want to explore class and control and power and wealth and lack of it – but in this provincial setting – but I want my characters to travel not just through time but through CLASS as well, class mobility, value and the politics of that interest me. I am struggling here not to plot spoil and reveal what the on-going plot of this trilogy will be – though I think some aspects of it are obvious – others you won’t guess. That’s why I was trying to write a novel that showed working class, middle class and upper class characters, but without my own prejudices, without taking sides – trying to be objective and fair – trying to see things from the point of view of others. Face it: if you and I owned a big, big house in the country, we probably wouldn’t give it away for free. And in fact, we might start to follow a belief system that protected our possessions and position in society. Voila! Are we born in to our values or are they imposed on us? If we rebel against them is it just a posture until the hard realities of money and power reveal themselves? These questions interest me. Likewise – why does poor Nikki Caine up on the council estate have so few opportunities in life compared to Varie Bultitude in this life? It isn’t fair. But we know life isn’t fair. How much can we stomach that? And in this novel sequence, what if those roles suddenly were inverted?

Q: Varie is at first an elusive and intriguing character, one who Simon idealizes as the ultimate sexual experience and who seems to offer him hope of freedom and of a different life. Do you consider Varie to be of symbolic value in relation to him as the book progresses? And did you consider Simon’s sexual thoughts and experiences to be one of the necessary components of what could be perceived as a ‘coming of age’ tale?

I think Simon is conflicted. I am not so sure he sees her as a possible ultimate sexual experience – he just finds her very attractive – and I think sexually, Varie is more worldly and has the upper hand – she has had more lovers than him. She’s also – slightly nuts of course, with her occult interests. I think Simon is – if he is being honest - and he sometimes is – both attracted to her and fascinated by her, but also slightly resentful towards her with regards to the power of attraction she wields over him (a typical misogynist position), but also there is this class issue at work in that she looks down on him yet she also seems to genuinely care for him. There is also his relationship with her brother which complicates things further.

Q: Will we ever see a return of Simon Crimmons?

Oh yes. One book is in messy note form but needs a year’s work; the other unwritten, but I know exactly what happens in them and one day will get to work on the old railway trilogy. They had rough titles: Charging Through Beauty and The Permanent Way – but that last title was used by David Hare. I wanted to take the story up into the 1990s. Its themes branch out – so to speak (another working title was The Branchline, another An Outlying Station, but my sadly-departed friend Roddy Lumsden RIP used that title with my permission for one of his poems).

Q: How important is the character of Alexander Bultitude in exploring the culture of the 1970s? As it is largely through his dialogues with Simon that the reader learns about the music and books that interest and inspire them.

I like him but not sure I trust him – he’s sort of flamboyant 70s, a bit of Jerry Cornelius and a bit of Reginald Perrin. He has read Waugh but I don’t think he is going to let that define him. A kind of spoiled public school boy, but smart - not just a dim toff – and slightly damaged as well. Of course Varie and Alex have lost their Mum at a young age, so I have sympathy. There is something murky about the family though. Yes, I like that aspect of Alex and Simon just talking about books and records. It’s a bit boyish and indulgent, I know. But that WAS the lived culture, those totems were so important in those days before the internet. I mean “swapping albums” was such a big deal back then – it was the only way to hear music, so you would come to school and give someone three albums to listen to, and they would give you three. It was wonderful. Of course I was playing with my Action Man in 1973, but I really tried to get the feel and the accuracy of it there. And soon enough for Simon and Alex, and Nikki and Varie, it will be the later 70s and early 80s and I will be on surer ground. It’s going to get ugly. ●