Roy Wilkinson talks to author Alan Warner about his new book ‘Kitchenly 434’ – and about prog rock, the Scottish Highlands and gypsy cream biscuits.
Novelist Alan Warner is forever linked with a particular female name – Morvern Callar, the title of his wondrous, haunted and acclaimed 1995 debut novel. Hilary Mantel said of the book: ‘Brilliant, tender, a stylistic dazzler’; Samantha Morton magnetically played Morvern in the film version. Warner’s new novel, called Kitchenly 434, is a fascinating and sometimes unsettling narrative, set in a big house in Sussex – Kitchenly Mill Race – in the late 1970s.
Kitchenly 434 takes in prog rock, social hierarchies, Dylan Thomas, architecture and Worzel Gummidge – alongside our desire and longing for anything from pop stars to telescopes to bourbon biscuits. Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Jethro Tull and Gary Numan all feature, in a narrative that has none of the hectic mood the above listings might suggest. Crofton Clark is the narrator – ex-roadie, now butler / help at Kitchenly. Crofton is taking care of the mansion for his largely absentee hero / boss Marko Morrell, guitarist with the hugely successful prog-rock group Fear Taker. Crofton’s tone veers from a self-conscious calmness to a kind of oddly engaging pedantry.
The writer and rocker Michael Moorcock says of Warner: ‘One our finest writers, Warner is an original, a school of fiction all of his own.’ Moorcock is a fitting commentator here, having written and performed with Hawkwind. To this writer, Hawkwind are safely removed from the more bombastic end of prog – more a British answer to Can, invigorated by Lemmy’s greaser charisma, plus dashes of a sci-fi Billy Smart’s Circus. Kitchenly 434, however, has backdrop of mainline prog, albeit fed into the narrative with an assured prose style that means the novel can never be mistaken for an ELP convention.
Your correspondent talked to Alan Warner for two hours in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, over some deep-fried calzone and several cans of Tennent’s much-loved ‘Auld Purple Tin’. Actually, don’t worry Nicola Sturgeon and all laudable adherents to science-friendly lockdown etiquette – not really, we talked on the telephone. But, ever since I first interviewed Alan, in 1997, it’s been a tradition that any phone chat must be reimagined over deep-fried pizza-plus…
Warner’s books have often been infused with real-world music; Can, Miles Davis, Magazine, Ma Rainey, rave and Blue Öyster Cult sound from clubs and mix tapes in Morvern Callar. Black Grape, Dylan and The Verve, variously, feature in Warner’s second novel, These Demented Lands. And progressive rock is the essential musical backdrop in Kitchenly 434. Warner, it emerges, had only a partial prog phase as a teen. But let’s start with a tale that encompasses a couple of key things – Warner’s origins, in and around Oban in the Scottish Highlands, and also his quite specific ideal for the best in progressive sound…
AW: I was a great hill walker while growing up. In 1982, [Brian] Eno released the album On Land – ambient music specifically related to landscape. Barely music, music that barely happens…I used to wander around listening to On Land, despite not getting a Walkman until later. What I did was…before I had my Walkman, my mate, Alasdair Robertson, had this idea he wanted to meet me in Oban at six in the morning. I lived in a village called Connel, about five miles away and we thought it’d be a real jape if I walked into town. So, I had to set off about four in the morning or something. It was pitch black and I started walking. I took a portable cassette player and stuck on Eno’s On Land – walking through the countryside with this strange ambient music playing, quite loud mind, because there were no houses, no one to disturb. I made out this figure coming towards me. I just went, ‘Fuck, I wonder who it is.’ I kind of stepped aside and, as you did in that culture, you went ‘Aye’. And he went back to me, ‘Aye.’ That was all we said and he went his way and I went my way. He must have heard that music a long time before we physically met, wondering, ‘What the fuck’s that?’ Maybe Eno’s music had its apex at that moment…Eno and me and this guy – this music that relates to location and environment, all just meeting in the Highland night. This music has an eerie feel to it. So, it was all the better to scare this guy, who must have been at a party of something. I always wonder what he thought – this weirdo with a cassette player playing this weird music in the dark. If it had been AC/DC he wouldn’t have minded, but On Land By Brian Eno…
RW: How much was prog rock part of your teenage years?
AW: This was the punk and post-punk period and I was reading the NME, where you were taught to despise these bands. But, for example, Yes were about and I did do a swap with a mate where I got his copy of Yes’s Topographic Oceans – the most boring Yes album…I was familiar with some of the music that features in the book [Kitchenly 434], but I was suspicious of ELP and rightly so. In that new wave period I was listening to The Fall, Simple Minds, Echo And The Bunnymen, Japan. But a lot of my mates had big record collections and that prog rock stuff was there. My pal gave me the The Future Now solo album by Peter Hammill. That was how I discovered Van der Graaf Generator, by discovering their main man, Peter Hammill – and Peter Hammill wasn’t on the list of bands written off in the post-punk era, because Johnny Rotten had OK’d Peter Hammill. So, I had some knowledge of the progressive rock world, but I cannot be said to be an expert in the area. Much as I am a martyr to my art, I’m not going to listen to every Uriah Heep album [laughs].
RW: Prog rock is clearly a big part of Kitchenly 434 – and it’s fair to say it’s a very male music genre. The novel is billed as being about ‘delusional male behaviour’. Did you alight on prog as something that could be used to illuminate a certain kind of male mind?
AW: Prog is a very male domain, with maybe a few disgruntled girlfriends who’ve been dragged along. There’s a lot of information there, in terms of the long, pretentious song titles and also the subject matter. It’s a strange insular world, but also very popular. Prog rock does seem to be the rock equivalent of model railways. I think males do often adopt more all-consuming hobbies than females and I think this is what’s happened to Crofton. He’s living in this world of male delusion, where he’s been able to shut himself away. He’s a failure in terms of relationships so he’s shut down on that. He’s hiding from the world and he’s doing it by becoming the band’s biggest fan, who just happens to live with the guitarist in his favourite band…
<At this point, Alan goes to get a glass of water – or maybe another piece of deep-fried calzone. While he’s away, your correspondent will touch on a couple of things that get brought up after our chat, ideas that maybe give 1970s Kitchenly an oddly 2021 aspect. One is the way the domestic staff are sequestered in the big house, maybe suggesting a precursor to Covid lockdown. The other thing concerns the way Crofton’s particularly male mind now emerges into a world where women are very much demanding to be freed from problematic male psyches. Not that Crofton is any misogynist, but this juxtaposition seems interesting – Kitchenly 434 is certainly not celebrating Crofton’s peculiar mind…back to the interview – and to the impressive way women have been represented in Warner’s books…>
RW: You’ve been praised for the way you’ve written and inhabited female characters – most famously the title character in Morvern Callar, and also the vibrant young women in the school choir in The Sopranos. But your last three books have had male protagonists. That shift across time must have crossed your mind?
AW: Character-wise that is fair. I suppose you want to change things over time. I had become associated with that female point of view, but I’ve always said that I just try to write characters as well as I can and the gender almost seems irrelevant. Maybe I feel I’m able to push this new book further into the realm of the sad male introvert because I’ve already explored female characters. I’ve paid my dues, so I’m now allowed to write about prog rock [laughs]. I like it in Kitchenly when the two young girls arrive from the village. I really tried to write them as best I could, because being solely in Crofton’s company would’ve been intense. I also like the voice of Mrs H [the housekeeper]. There is a feminine side to the book. We’re in this rock world of wealth – and sex and drugs orbiting there somewhere – and a kind of aggression to this music and the brutal profiteering. But we’re actually in this soft domestic place, where the mood is quite feminine. There’s been the idea that the book is ‘cocaine meets The Remains Of The Day’, but the text is more about Tetley tea bags and gypsy cream biscuits.
RW: Beyond the specifics of prog rock, were there any particular things you’ve encountered that led you to writing Kitchenly 434?
AW: There were two things. In the 1980s, I lived in London and used to go driving around the English countryside with a friend. One time we were on the Kent/Sussex border. I saw this amazing big house through trees – with a shallow lake between the lane and the house, giving it this dramatic effect. I asked at a petrol station and was told Jeff Beck was the owner. I’m a really big fan of Beck – to me he’s one of the very best electric guitarists. Beck’s house is Elizabethan, with additions. It has that droop in the roof, so the house seems part of the landscape. People go on about proportion and order in classical architecture, but it’s horrible. Those old English houses do seem to have grown out of the landscape. The other main root of the novel was Osterley Park and House, near Heathrow airport, a beautiful eighteenth-century house. I used to go there with my girlfriend on summer days and we’d have picnics. One day, I was in Osterley House, looking round the grand rooms and then I went downstairs to the toilet. Covered in dust and muck were these servants’ bells. Beautiful things but they hadn’t been preserved. The aristocrats’ furniture upstairs, that was legitimate history, but these 1930s servant bells weren’t legitimate history. I thought, that really is the social divide in action. In Kitchenly, I’m telling the story from the point of view of the workers in the house, rather than from the owner, Marko. This guitar hero Marko is filling the role of the lord of the manor. It doesn’t matter that Marko is a working-class guy from South London – he’s now in the big house and he controls power. Hierarchy will always be transposed onto any situation.
RW: In the book, Crofton comes up with a name for a Marko solo album – Stratification. It’s a play on the Stratocaster, one of Marko’s favourite types of guitar. But Stratification could also refer to this kind of social hierarchy…
AW: [Laughs] To be honest, I didn’t think of that other possible play on words. That’s serendipitous. The reference was definitely to a Stratocaster and also the layering of guitar overdubs – but I never thought of class stratification.
RW: Should Crofton be seen as a salutary figure – us men should watch out or we might become Crofton?
AW: He’s a fan, the arch fan of this band Fear Taker. You can be consumed by your hobby. If you want to be objective, Crofton is being crushed by his hobby. I think men can be more consumed by their hobbies than women and it can have an element of quiet tragedy. At times my life has been utterly consumed by books and records. What I always really wanted to get consumed by was model railways. I’ve been trying to do that for 25 years, but I’ve never had the stable life needed to build a railway layout. I see a parallel between model railways and writing a novel – which is why there’s a model railway in Morvern Callar. Her boyfriend seems a man consumed by his train set…I’m also disappointed at the overarching realist concept of model railway layouts. Men try to build model railways that are exact miniatures of our society – Crewe 1959 and so on. There’s definitely more room for fantasy model railways. I would maybe build The HP Lovecraft Line…
RW: Looking back to Morvern Callar, a few years ago I was taking the boat from Oban to the island of Mull. I just looked at the map and saw there’s a geographical feature called Morvern, a big peninsula. It was rather lovely to be there and realise the book is linked to that landscape…
AW: Well, Morvern is a girl’s name up there [in the Highlands] – not that common, but it is a name and there’s also the Morvern peninsula. I was at school with three or four Morverns… I suppose I did pick the name because of its geographical specificity. It was maybe a useless name for a first novel [laughs]. It was so fucking obscure. When you say it, most people ask you to repeat it because they can’t visualise the name. I was very lucky that novel did OK.
RW: I remember you saying you can’t write to music that’s exciting – because it alters the mood and makes you think everything you’re writing is as exciting as the music. Is that still the case?
AW: Pretty much – though, talking of Eno’s music, that has helped out a lot. When Eno released the album Thursday Afternoon that was great for me because it’s like an hour long – to be able to put on an hour-long track I could work to was great. I must be prog in my heart because I’ve always loved long tracks. I loved it when a band had a track that took up a whole side of a vinyl album. Pink Floyd with their track ‘Echoes’, or Miles Davis on many albums…There’s somehow just an instant excitement about it.
RW: Can you tell us some newer musical artists you like?
AW: I finally got the Aldous Harding albums. She’s amazing. Also, he’s maybe not fashionable right now, but I am into James Blake. I like his voice and the tenderness of it, with the Palestrina-like religious edge – Palestrina, the 16th-century polyphonic composer of music for masses and so on.
RW: You mentioned that you’ve recently been listening to 120 hours of live music by Can, the great Cologne kosmische group. Why were you listening to all the live Can?
AW: That was work [laughs]. What happened was the Can guys – well Irmin [Schmidt] is the one who’s left, really – Irmin and Mute Records are putting out a beautiful series of Can live albums. Irmin was kind enough to involve me in this and asked me to listen to a lot of live material. Me and and this guy Andy Hall listened to loads of live stuff – Andy is someone who bootlegged loads of Can shows and now he’s kind of poacher turned gamekeeper, working with Can on official releases. Can played on Halloween in 1975 in Stuttgart and that was the one we thought had the best sound. Irmin likes it too and it’s coming out. There will be other live albums. The world can never have enough Can albums!
With that the chat comes to a close. Warner puts down the phone, maybe to kick back and consider the remains of the day. Or the remains of that calzone…