Warner's new book is set in 1980s student London. Photo: Gwydion M Williams/Flickr
Show Hide image

A literary Withnail and I: Alan Warner’s Their Lips Talk of Mischief

The latest novel by the author of Morvern Callar is set in a boozy, 1980s student London.

Their Lips Talk of Mischief 
Alan Warner
Faber & Faber, 352pp, £14.99

In Patrick Marber’s 1997 play Closer, a doctor verbally assaults a novelist with what feels, in that moment, to be the most withering of put-downs: “You writer!” Those two words, delivered with such venom, are certain to sting the ego of anyone who derives a sense of self-worth from their work in fiction and its cultural worth as a medium. “Writer” – it just sounds so pathetic, so frivolous.

The status of the novelist has always been affected by what goes on at the periphery of the writing itself. Until the early 19th century, high literature was the domain of poets; it wasn’t until industrialisation and the rise of the urban middle classes that the novel was accepted as the pre-eminent means of literary expression. The form had existed in the English language since the 1480s and many novels had since sold well, but the serious (that is, male) reader was devoted to sweeping visions set in metre and rhyme. Milton was grand, Blake was holy and Byron was phallic. Leave the frivolities of prose to women!

Or so things were, once. When I first became aware of literature as a child in the late 1980s, fiction writers had claim to a kind of macho rock-star status. Of course, only actual rock stars had the real thing – no reasonable reader has been inspired to mosh or mouth along with the author at a book launch – but an aura of glamour shone from the likes of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, even Stephen King.

The poets, less so. In Alan Warner’s Their Lips Talk of Mischief, a novel set conspicuously in 1984, the boozy young protagonists Llewellyn Smith and Douglas Cunningham – a literary Withnail and I – meet in a London hospital waiting room, where Scottish UCL dropout Cunningham is trying to steal a few moments of sleep after being turfed out of his student accommodation. It’s the bromance equivalent of love at first sight. Within moments of leaving the sterile A&E, the pair of them are plotting what they decide will be their swift rise to fame in the book world over pints in a local pub. And it’s fiction that deserves their talents, the only arena fit for their genius. “Poets are OK for nicking similes off. What else?” asks Llewellyn (known to his friends as Lou), dismissively.

Warner landed with a splash in the mid-1990s with Morvern Callar, another novel with a novel at its centre. In that Scots drama, a woman passes off her dead lover’s work as her own. In Warner’s new book, there is yet again a whiff of charlatanism. Lou, for all his braggadocio, comes across as a dreamer in the vein of Hal Hartley’s film creation Henry Fool: a devilish unlocker of the imaginations of those around him, but possessed of little potential of his own. He shows Cunningham his edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, in which he has underlined “great words . . . the words I’m going to use in my novel”. Hardly a promising methodology.

Cunningham moves in with Lou in his run-down west London flat, where he meets Aoife, his new mucker’s “menacingly beautiful” fiancée. There, the characters talk books, get profoundly drunk and stew in the inevitable sexual tension. Warner signposts Cunningham’s ever-growing attraction to Aoife with a gleeful lack of subtlety.

The London the characters inhabit is less “West End Girls” and Big Bang than the men’s clubs of Minder, with the language of the TLS thrown in. The novel lovingly details the trappings of the 1980s (will today’s teenagers need a footnote explaining what phonecards are?) but its sense of nostalgia is most potent in the way it evokes the thrill of becoming an author.

For readers at a time when the median income of a professional writer is £11,000 – well below what the Joseph Rowntree Foundation deems necessary for a “minimum standard of living” – it will be almost startling to find characters so caught up in the fantasy of a starry literary life. Lou, who writes nothing at all in the course of Warner’s narrative, would no doubt deny it vehemently but it’s the prestige that then surrounded the published author that probably appeals to him.

While the book’s story about books deliberately goes nowhere, its romantic plotline has the velocity of an out-of-control Tube train. The problem, however, is the clumsy handling of the second half of the novel, which resorts to an unsatisfying LSD-trip sequence to resolve what was until then a delicately balanced scenario. Worse still, Warner ends on a note of hesitancy that speaks as much of his own doubts about how to conclude it all as it does the characters’. After the focus of The Deadman’s Pedal, Warner’s terrific 2012 novel, Their Lips Talk of Mischief feels like a diverting yet minor experiment in self-consciously literary fiction. Lou, a harsh critic at the best of times, may not approve. 

Yo Zushi is a contributing writer for the New Statesman. His latest album, It Never Entered My Mind, is out now on Eidola Records and is on Spotify here.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The summer of blood

Show Hide image

Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue