‘Don’t scum me out!’
- The Stars in the Bright Sky by Alan Warner
Vintage, 394 pp, £7.99, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 09 946182 1
‘Airports,’ J.G. Ballard noted, ‘seem to be almost the only form of public architecture free from the pressures of kitsch or nostalgia. As far as I know, there are no half-timbered terminal buildings or pebble-dashed control towers.’ Alan Warner isn’t a novelist you’d expect to be much interested in the departures hall, being best known for a sort of wild provincial fabulism. Each of his first five books is saturated with ‘place’, using skewed dialect and surreal local legend to transform tourist traps (usually in the Highlands, but with occasional trips to the Costa del Sol) into strangely heightened fictive worlds. His towns tend to ignore the tourist gaze, rich with their own gossipy lore.
Gatwick Airport is therefore an incongruous setting for the sequel to Warner’s third novel, The Sopranos. Airports do the opposite of what his novels do, annihilating intimacy and a sense of place. Only a very mulish futurist could accept Ballard’s vision of the airport as the ideal urban space (‘the concourses are the ramblas and agoras of the future city … where briefly we become true world citizens’), but his wilful celebration of its hinterland has its reflection in Warner’s The Stars in the Bright Sky. ‘In addition to the airport itself,’ Ballard wrote,
I value the benevolent social and architectural influence that a huge transit facility such as Heathrow casts on the urban landscape around it. I have learned to like the intricate network of perimeter roads, the car-rental offices, air freight depots and travel clinics, the light industrial and motel architecture that unvaryingly surrounds every major airport in the world.
Warner populates this dismal zone with six young women, his solution to the transience and wipe-clean nullity of the place.
In The Sopranos a tribe of Catholic schoolgirls travel from their unspecified West Highland port town (a version of Oban) to the Capital (a thinly veiled Edinburgh) for a singing competition. The choir contest is rapidly forgotten while the girls’ hyperbolic drunken and sexual misadventures are conveyed in busy, demotic prose that is both exhilarating and utterly convincing. Kylah, Chell, Manda, Orla, Finn and Kay’s talk about nail varnish, abortions and hand-jobs is rendered with such unnerving conviction that there is no impulse to moralise. And we’re not meant to. We simply enjoy their exuberance:
They’ve youth; they’ll walk it out like a favourite pair trainers. It’s a poem this youth and why should they know it, as the five of them move up the empty corridors? We should get shoved aside cause they have it now, in glow of skin and liquid clarity of deep eye on coming June nights and ’cause it will go … After all what do we amount to but a load of old worn-out shoes?
In the sequel the girls are three years out of school; Kylah and Chell share a flat in the Port, doing dead-end jobs in retail and tourism. They still see a lot of Manda, who works in her sister’s hair salon when she isn’t looking after her son, ‘wee Sean’. Manda’s ‘ghastly impregnator’ is out of the picture, which gives her licence to indulge in ‘single-mother martyrdom’ with the other Port girls. Kay, Finn and Ava are at university in Edinburgh and London, studying subjects like architecture and philosophy. (Ava is the group’s posh, English and alluring replacement for Orla, who has succumbed to the Hodgkin’s disease she battles in The Sopranos.)