Warner's new book is set in 1980s student London. Photo: Gwydion M Williams/Flickr
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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 sub-editor of the New Statesman. His work as a musician is released by Eidola Records.

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

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The top children’s TV show conspiracy theories

From randy Postman Pat to white supremacist Smurfs, we present to you your childhood in tatters.

We can probably all agree that, these days, nothing is sacred. If you can (as a few very insistent YouTube videos have told me) pay to watch live snuff films on the dark web, there’s probably someone out there – in the thronging nest of perversions that is the internet – ready to take something special from your childhood (say, a favourite TV programme) and make it unclean.

Which is exactly what happened when an internet-spawned theory found history’s least sexual fictional character, Postman Pat, to be a stop motion sex monster. The theory goes that he has fathered a lot of children in the village school, many of whom have ginger hair; Pat is the only red head in Greendale.

Because humans are incapable of not picking at every innocent thing until it goes gangrenous, here are some other childhood-ruining fan theories.

Babar is a colonial stooge

Babar lording it over the colonies. Photo: Flickr/Vanessa

Could everyone’s favourite anthropomorphic French elephant be an apologist for centuries of Western brutality and conquest? Well, yes, obviously. According to the “Holy Hell Is Babar Problematic” theory, the fact that the titular character was born in Africa, raised and “civilised” in Paris, then sent back to Elephant Land to be king and teach all the other elephants how to be French, makes Babar about as suitable for children as a Ladybird introduction to eugenics and a Playmobil King Leopold.

For further proof that this theory isn’t “political correctness gone mad”, but actually political correctness gone quite sensible, just look at some of the (deeply un-OK) illustrations from the 1949 book Babar’s Picnic.

The Smurfs are white supremacists

A horrifying vision of ethnic uniformity. Photo: Getty

Or maybe “blue supremacists” would be more accurate. Either way, they’re racist. Possibly. It’s been pointed out that the Smurfs all wear pointy white hats. Apart from their leader, Papa Smurf (the ultimate patriarch..?), who wears a red one. Meaning these tiny munchkin thingies are (maybe, just maybe) sartorially influenced by none other than the Ku Klux Klan.

This seems tenuous at best, until you look at a few other factors in this theory brought to light by French political scientist Antoine Buéno. Buéno suggests that the dictatorial political structure of Smurf Village paired with some actually quite convincing racism (when Smurfs turn black, for example, they become barbaric and lose the power of speech), equals Nazism.

What’s more, the Smurfs’ main antagonist – a wizard called Gargamel – is not unlike an antisemitic caricature from Nazi propaganda magazine Der Stürmer. He’s dark haired, hook-nosed and obsessed with gold. Oh, and he has a cat called Azrael, which is the Hebrew name for the Angel of Death.


A photo posted by furkan (@furkanhaytaoglu) on

And, in case you’re not already far enough down the “Smurfs are racist” rabbit hole, just look at Smurfette and her long, blonde hair. Aryan much?

SpongeBob SquarePants is a post-nuclear mutant

Forever running from haunting memories of radioactive atrocity. Photo: Flickr/Kooroshication

According to one fan theory, this Nickelodeon classic may have more in common with The Hills Have Eyes than we think. SpongeBob, a talking sponge who lives in an underwater pineapple with a meowing snail, may well be the product of nuclear testing.

In the Forties, the US detonated two nukes in an area of the Pacific called Bikini Atoll. SpongeBob lives somewhere called Bikini Bottom. Coincidence, or an especially dark analogy for the dangers of radiation and man’s lust for destruction? Hm.

Tom and Jerry is Nazi propaganda

Skipping merrily through the Third Reich. Photo: Flickr/momokacma

Either we’re so obsessed with Nazism that we look for it (and find it…) in literally everything, or the antics of a classic cat and mouse duo really do contain coded messages about the futility of the Allies’ war with the Third Reich.

If we’re going for the latter, let’s start with the characters’ names. Tom (Tommies were British soldiers) and Jerry (Jerries were German ones). Now remember, Tom is the bad guy. In every episode, he tries to kill Jerry by any means possible, but is foiled every single time, getting blown up by sticks of dynamite and flattened by falling anvils along the way.

Tom and Jerry first aired in 1940 – the same year as the Battle of Britain. So, if the reference to slang for Brits and Germans was unintentional, it was more than a little bit unfortunate. And, according to some albeit sketchy-looking corners of the internet, this was no accident at all but a message (in that Jerry constantly outwits Tom) about superior German intelligence.

Although this may seem like the least compelling of all of these dark fan theories, it would explain why I always had a gut feeling the painfully smug Jerry was the actual baddie.

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.