This month has seen two of Scotland’s greatest living writers in the news. Alasdair Gray has had his short fiction collected into one impressive volume, while James Kelman won the Saltire Book of the Year award for ‘Mo said she was quirky’, and in time honoured fashion managed to make the newspapers by forecfully restating the point that the language many Scots use is still seen as lesser in terms of social/cultural worth, and thank god he still does. Once more many commentators make his point for him by concentrating on the swearing and refusing to properly engage in the argument. Haven’t they read his books?
This month’s novel is by a contemporary of Kelman and Gray’s, but one who neither matched their fame or productivity. The man is Jeff Torrington and the novel is ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’. Not only does it support Kelman’s argument more eloquently than any amount of critical conversation, but it is one of the top ten Scottish novels of the last 30 years, and I’m going to be making even wilder claims for it than that, so hang on to your hats.
Its easy going use of colloquial Glaswegian is only one feature that makes it exactly the kind of book that Kelman would approve of. In fact ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’ is a book in love with language, and it is a language anyone familiar with Glasgow will recognise. Call it patter, banter, or the ramblings of the smart arse weegie (and I include myself in this category), there is a richness in Torrington’s language which is rare and exciting to read. It is also incredibly funny. I wish I could quote huge chunks of it here, but you’ll have to read it to get the full picture.
Imagine a John Byrne scripted drama with a young Billy Connolly in the lead and you have some idea of what to expect. For anyone who has read Kelman and thought him too serious then you must try ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’. The language is used as a shield and to charm, it is honed and learned, and is absolutely authentic. You never doubt any of the characters that appear. This novel is all about character and voice, there is no real story to speak of. It’s about the journey rather than where anyone ends up. As central character Tam Clay says, ‘plots are for cemeteries’.
It is the closest Glasgow has come to a novel that could rival James Joyce’s Dublin set ‘Ulysses’, the difference is that ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’ is a much more enjoyable read. Don’t get me wrong, Joyce’s novel is obviously a masterpiece, but when you finish it there is as much a sense of achievement as one of pleasure. Torrington doesn’t make the same demands from his reader, but that does not make it a lesser book, just a more inviting one.
Tam Clay travels from the Gorbals, up the High St, which he calls ‘the vestigial spine of ancient Glasgow’, to Townhead, then further North to Springburn, before oscillating wildly here, there and everywhere and ending back in and around the condemned tenements and dive bars of the Gorbals. All this rushing about is so that Tam can avoid real life as he is about to become a father and his house is under threat. There are the usual touchstones of drink, poverty and black, black humour. There is also an unexpected surrealism. Torrington’s imagination is captivating and he lends this to Clay who sees a deep-sea diver emerge from the local cinema, and who has a Kafkaesque fascination with fleas, beetles, and other minute life forms. Again, the surrealism comes from the language rather than the situation. Not so much magical realism just looking at life through a glass, oddly.
‘Swing Hammer Swing! is the work of a well read man who has no problem referencing Nietzsche (who Clay calls ‘The Liepzig Lip’), JP Sartre, Kierkegaard and Chekov but these are referenced in the same manner that he refers to Paul Newman, John Mills and Roy Orbison. There are no differentiations made in terms of high or low culture, they are simply frames of reference, except in one important aspect, that of place.
Many of the popular references show the love affair that the west coast of Scotland in particular has had with American culture, be it country and western, rock ‘n’ roll, the Wild West, Hollywood and House music. It could be argued that Glasgow in the 70s and 80s saw itself as the 51st State, its denizens enjoying nights out to the tunes of Buddy Holly, Patsy Cline or Derrick May. It appears that Torrington thought that Europe was for thinking, the US for dancing, and that’s an attitude I have some sympathy with.
There are lots of references to beetles of various forms in the book, including those running over floorboards in flats and pubs, the VW which takes them up and down the town, and the legendary band, misspelt by the local fleapit cinema the Planet as ‘The Beetles, The Dab Four’, so here’s an early clip of the dab four doing ‘Twist and Shout’, which has one of my favourite vocal performances of all time:
As an extra treat this is the great Hamish Imlach singing ‘Cod Liver Oil and The Orange Juice’ where the narrator visits many of the same haunts as Tam Clay, even meeting Hairy Mary, the ‘flooer a’ the Gorbals’. This is a classic performance of a great song:
If ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’ isn’t the great Glasgow novel I would suggest that it is at least in a three horse race alongside Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ and Archie Hind’s ‘Dear Green Place’ for that title. All three books were more than mere projects to their writers, they were all consuming undertakings. Torrington and Hind never approached matching their debuts, and some would argue the same applies to Gray. These are novels which weren’t just labours of love, for years they all consuming obsessions. Torrington did also have published ‘The Devil’s Carousel’ in 1998, but it is ‘Swing Hammer Swing!’ which is how he should be remembered.
If you know someone who loves literary novels and who is looking for something that genuinely stands shoulder to shoulder with Gray and Kelman, and I would suggest Joyce and Chekov, then this is the book to give them. Like all of those writers Torrington never apologises and never explains, trusting that readers will get it, something that is a feature of all the best artists. The only sadness is that he didn’t leave us with more, but to have produced something this perfect is more than most people will ever do.
Next Month’s Novel: Jackie Kay is best known as a poet, and one of our finest at that, but her fiction should not be over looked. This year she released a great collection of short stories, ‘Reality, Reality’, but the place to start is with next month’s novel, ‘Trumpet’.
Set against the world of jazz, the novel asks questions about identity, family, love and loss and is written with the eye and command of language that you would expect from a writer who couldn’t write a dull sentence if she tried.
- Jackie Kay Trumpet (Jan)
- Frederic Lindsay Brond (Feb)
- Tom Morton Red Guitars in Heaven (Mar)
- George Friel Mr Alfred, MA (Apr)
- Archie Hind Dear Green Place (May)