Reviewed by Noreen Masud
There’s a wealth of Scottish fiction from the last fifty years which follows a pattern of sorts: skittering, tumbling prose, streaming through long sentences, hopped up on heroin (Trainspotting) or lust (1982, Janine) or 90s music (Morvern Callar). But this flow of fervency both evades and drives straight towards an invisible central dilemma. The great unspoken question it circles is one which any culture wrestling with a sense of its own colonised status asks of its literature: does this book succeed in capturing something of Scotland or Scottishness?
Towards the end of Swing Hammer Swing! (1992), reissued by Vintage this year in a gorgeous new edition, Jeff Torrington’s protagonist allows his gut response to this nationalistic demand to bubble up and out. Watching a man and woman wrestle over a Christmas tree, halfway down the High Street, Tam Clay muses, ‘What a city was Glasgow!’ He needn’t have spoken. From the very outset, Torrington’s book is a hymn to place. Set in the Gorbals – the infamous Glasgow slum – during the demolition of its tenements in the early 1960s, the novel follows Tam around the neighbourhood through a week in his life, with meticulous geographic precision.
Heading westwards in the company of a whistling dwarf, my stomach dancing from the stink of him, my disquiet mounting at the taxi-meter’s hyper-activity, I found that the compiler of this monochrome evening had prepared an elegant coincidence, arranging for it to flower at Glasgow Cross. Our cab, which seemed to’ve a turtle instead of a tiger in its tank, had just settled for a quick snooze at a set of traffic lights when an ambulance giving it the crisis bit – flashing lights and yowling siren – came breenging from the Saltmarket, shot across the mouths of London Road and the Gallowgate, and went wailing up the High Street.
Torrington’s attentiveness to roads and placenames, as he details the exact trajectory which things describe, underlines the novel’s interest in speeding from point to point. Fast-talking, febrile-minded Tam is constantly on the run: from his pregnant partner Rhona, the doctor who wants to pack him back to work, pub bores, unwanted job offers, and haggish sisters-in-law. Tam always seems to be swerving: dodging through the streets in other people’s cars, ducking to avoid furniture and plants. This is a novel stuffed with too many people, objects, voices, all getting in our way and Tam’s. Confronted with the ‘visual muggery’ of his sister-in-law’s overstuffed lounge, he reacts by building a defensive wall of language:
With a pilgrim’s awed stoop, my eyes blinking rapidly as if to imply bedazzlement in the treasurehouse of tackiness, I took in the porcelain, the ivory knick-knacks, the fishtank in one corner, the TV set in another, the horsemobile, a tinkling herd that circled on the ceiling, the glass galleon with the tiny wooden bottle rammed up its gimcrack arsehole, the xmas cards in a star-shaped arrangement on one wall and with a burgeoning astral twin arising on the facing one.
This is crammed diction for a crammed novel. Tam constructs staggering piles of alliteration, multiplies the simplest objects through wordy defamiliarisation, steers from the scatological to the sublime. Torrington’s style ensures that we’re always running up against something new, being forced to swerve where we expected to go straight. Reading this book involves being constantly wrong-footed. It takes a while to adapt to its demands. But when you’ve adjusted to the pace, the prose transforms from obstreperous to spellbinding.
And beyond all the speed and chaos, there are moments of calm. Surreal, floating images of deep-sea divers and wrapped-up mummies recur over and over again. The motifs are so inexplicable and self-sufficient that they manage, ironically, to ground the novel. Both divers and mummies emerge from a dark unseen world: they come as lost revenants, back to a world which has moved on. We are reminded that Torrington’s novel is a hymn to the Glasgow of the 1960s, but it is also necessarily an elegy. Barely two pages into the second chapter, we learn that ‘[m]ost of the old Gorbals had been levelled by now.’ To follow Tam around the city is to pick through the ruins.
Torrington’s style and compressed time-frame make comparisons with James Joyce unavoidable. It’s a shame, because Swing Hammer Swing! is not the Ulysses of Glasgow, however hard it tries. Length does not equal scale, and Torrington’s novel lacks Joyce’s epic quality. Stylistic howlers also weaken the book. When Tam’s verbal footwork slips, it slips badly. I winced at a moment towards the end, where Tam confides, ‘Outwardly I suppose I looked calm enough, but in reality my bowels were in that state of nerve-riot which can best be simulated by tossing a live mongoose into a bucket of cobras.’
Strikingly, though, Torrington gets away with these cumbersome, adolescent moments. He holds his protagonist at just enough of a distance for us to receive this diction as a stylistic choice: the façade of a young, clever man, frightened and ferociously self-educated, always skirting disaster but not always quite phrasing it right. We warm to Tam as he reveals a series of unexpected phobias; the note of vulnerability prevents us from taking Tam at his cocky, slick-tongued word. This is all, we are reminded, performance. Or is it? Torrington’s sleight-of-hand achievement is to balance Glasgow between a city which is vividly and precisely conceived, and one which balloons, beyond credibility, into the comic. Tam consents to serve up Scotland – but as vaudeville.
Scottish fiction – I like it. Alasdair Gray, Lanark – Swing Hammer Swing! Has the same long genesis (Gray started writing in 1954, book published in 1981). Took Torrington 30 years to write his.
When she is not longing to be back in Scotland, Noreen Masud blogs at Parrots Ate Them All
Jeff Torrington, Swing Hammer Swing! (Vintage: London, 2015). 978-1784870126, 420 pp., paperback.
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