Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Jeff Torrington: Scottish Author of Swing Hammer Swing! a book which took him 30 years to write

Jeff Torrington was the author of many ephemeral short stories and two lasting works of fiction, Swing Hammer Swing! and The Devil's Carousel. The former, which had taken him 30 years to write, was published in 1992 to great acclaim and won the Whitbread Prize for First Novel and then for Book of the Year.
Torrington was born in 1935 in the Gorbals, Glasgow, when preparations for another huge war were bringing industrial Europe out of a long spell of high unemployment caused by the production of more food and necessities than could be profitably sold. Ordinary Scottish state schooling taught him to read, write and enjoy both activities. Like many too young to fight or die in the Second World War he benefited from the almost total nationalisation of Britain during and after it, especially the Health Service.
Before that the greatest killer of young folk in areas of poor housing was tuberculosis, and Jeff Torrington belonged to the first working-class generation to recover from that disease. A year of good medical treatment in a public sanatorium enabled him to read his way through the hospital library, while learning from fellow patients to enjoy chess and the music of Bach.
Being now tall, young and handsome, he became part of Scotland when its heavy industry was still productive, though about to end because it was based on the burning of locally mined coal. Coal-fuelled furnaces in Lanarkshire forged steel used to make steam ships and locomotives still built on Clydeside, steel also used to manufacture vans and cars at Bathgate and Linwood. Like other Scottish writers averse to using social security cash, Torrington supported his wife and growing family by various jobs – became a stoker of British Railway engines, a warehouseman, a telegraph operator with the GPO, an employee in the Linwood plant near Paisley.
And he also worked at writing, attending local writers' groups as a way of getting critical attention for his own. His first attempts were short stories in the manner of O. Henry and Damon Runyon, for like many British people he strongly sympathised with a United States culture that seemed classless compared to its English equivalent. Torrington called these stories "scorpions" because they all had tragi-comic stings in their tails that most newspaper editors and readers found satisfying.
But he tired of writing scorpions. His favourite authors were Kafka, Camus and Nabokov, and he wanted to write in language as carefully contrived as theirs, about people and a place he knew best. In 1981 and 1982 he was immobilised by a couple of shocking blows. After his eight years of working on the production line of the Hillman Imp car, the Chrysler plant shut down for ever, and soon after he was diagnosed as having Parkinson's disease.
A year passed before he recovered the good humour that enabled him to write, knowing that from now on he would slowly weaken into total helplessness, and that only the support of his wife Margaret would keep him going. In these circumstances he started attending writers' workshops again and working on his novel Swing Hammer Swing!
This is set in post-1960 Gorbals when Glasgow was becoming post-industrial because the capital funding Scottish industry was being pulled out. It describes two days in the life of Tam Clay, whose Gorbals home is being demolished while his wife is in hospital, about to give birth. Tam's movements around Glasgow are as aimless yet pre-determined as Stephen Dedalus wandering in Dublin.
Swing Hammer Swing! is, like Ulysses, a historical novel, set in the decade when Glasgow's local government caught up with modernity – not by modernising the city's well-built but dilapidated tenements, but by knocking them down to make room for a gigantic new motorway system. Cinemas, too, were demolished or turned into bingo halls as television soap operas replaced Hollywood movies as popular entertainment.
Though set in a Glasgow wasteland where many use Protestant-Catholic hostility to distract them from a bad political set-up, the book is grand farcical comedy. Torrington kept rewriting it in various voices – third-person English, American slang, phonetic Glaswegian and, finally, in his personal blend of all three. He might have worked longer on it, but met Jim Kelman in Paisley Central Library where Kelman ran a writers' workshop. Kelman told him it was all right now and sent it to Secker & Warburg. They published it in 1992.
Jeff would have used some of the prize money from the Whitbread Book of the Year award on a holiday with Margaret in New Orleans, home of the blues, jazz and black American speech he greatly loved. But travel was now beyond the strength he carefully husbanded, being unable to make his fingers type for much more than an hour each day. He depended increasingly on Margaret and said, "She stops the roof falling in while I toil at the prose-face."
He slowly wrote a collection of blackly funny stories about men working on a car production line, each one of them continually fitting on a tiny unit or inserting a bolt someone else would tighten. Fear of unemployment condemns them to these mind-destroying activities, so the factory's closure at the end is NOT a release into greater freedom, but a new form of hell. The Devil's Carousel was published in 1996.
He was unable to write more than some pages of a third book, about a surreal community of eccentrics living in and around a concrete aeroplane that could never leave the ground. This may have been how he saw post-modern Scotland. He was delighted to find himself one of several published writers who were his friends and whose work he respected – Kelman, Tom Leonard, Agnes Owens, and so on. When asked why so many good writers had emerged from a small part of Scotland he replied, "Gloom." Which proves his faith in the force of levity.
Alasdair Gray
Jeff Torrington was an incredibly generous soul who left many people, myself included, forever in his debt, writes Irvine Welsh. I first met him shortly after the publication of Swing Hammer Swing!, when Jeff was in a tremendously turbulent period in his life. The novel had famously been 30 years in the making, and had suddenly propelled him to international recognition, while he was battling against the debilitating impact of the Parkinson's disease which beset him in his forties. He might have been excused for having other things on his mind besides offering support and encouragement to young writers, but Jeff simply wasn't made that way.
When I made it into print myself, I cheekily asked him for a quote for my first novel, and he gave me a cracker. It's very hard for a first-time novelist to get attention, and Jeff was the man in the spotlight then, and he happily chose to shed some of that glare on Trainspotting, bringing it to the world's eyes.
Novels are mysterious entities. Some of them give you no indication of the writer's personality, while others are the reverse. It would be trite and facile to see Tam Clay romping through the Gorbals of the 1960s as merely a young Jeff, even though the author and his wonderful wife Margaret were both born and bred there. But the vivacity and passion of the man certainly came across in his writing. Jeff had no qualms about deploying fluorescent adjectives, lip-puckering puns and liberal exclamation marks if they served his storytelling cause. It might have taken him a long time to find his literary voice, but it was well worth the wait: Swing Hammer Swing! was so vivid it was almost hallucinogenic.
Jeff was a man who loved books and literature. One memory I'll always treasure is bumping into him and Margaret in Glasgow's Horseshoe Bar. As is often the way with these inpromptu meetings, we had a wonderful afternoon, catching up on what we'd all been reading and generally putting the world to rights. The Parkinson's must have been so horribly frustrating for him, but it never stopped him being great company.
While it certainly curtailed, it could never quite halt his literary activities. In 1996 The Devil's Carousel was launched at the Scotia Bar in Glasgow. It was a great and memorable night. Jeff was no longer able to read from his work, but instead had delegated other writers to do the job. Seeing Jim Kelman, his great friend but polar opposite in stylistic terms, reading from Jeff's high-octane, adjective-ridden prose was something to behold.
Margaret was always by Jeff's side, and always looking out for him. She would invariably be the one to let the assembled company, whether international journalists, writer friends or members of his family and community know when he was tired and had had enough – Jeff would have gone on giving out until he dropped if she'd let him. They were a real couple bonded by a deep and obvious love.
Jeff Torrington was one of a kind: a humane and courageous man of letters, a loving family man, and a generous spirit with a heart the size of the sun.
Jeff Torrington, writer: born Glasgow 31 December 1935; married (two sons, one daughter); died Paisley, Renfrewshire 11 May 2008.
I read this and the Devils Carousel many years ago. Worth reading. I didn't know much about him until I stumbled upon his obituary. Many more (100 actually) great Scottish reads at The List


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