BOOK REVIEW / Grime and punishment in Glasgow: 'Swing Hammer Swing]' - Jeff Torrington: Secker & Warburg, 7.99 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALTHOUGH Alasdair Gray's Lanark (1981) may be said to have inaugurated the new school of urban Scottish writing, the school really threw open its doors with the publication, four years later, of Lean Tales, a collection featuring the work of Gray, James Kelman and Agnes Owens. Most of the chief characteristics of the genre were here revealed: the weirdness (Gray), the self-absorbed brooding (Kelman), the tough realism (Owens). In addition, the volume contained two of Kelman's finest early pieces, 'Extra Cup' and 'A Nightboilerman's Notes'.

Of these three it was Kelman who proved to be the most influential. The philosophical Scots vagrant who hasn't the price of a cup of tea but can still offer you his opinions on Dostoyevsky is a fixture of the modern Scottish novel; short stories of the sort submitted to the annual HarperCollins / Scottish Arts Council anthology echo to the sound of breaking glass and edgy Glasgow patois. Doubtless, to adapt a remark once made of Hardy and his Dorsetshire rustics, the inhabitants of those Cathcart speakeasies, cautiously nursing their pints of Heavy and studying the racing form, now have all the vanity of the artist's model.

At first sight Jeff Torrington's first novel, which has already won the Whitbread Prize for its category and may yet go on to even higher things, looks ready to fit into the Kelman bracket, a suspicion reinforced by Kelman's matey jacket puff. As it turns out, though, the result is pleasantly underivative. This is not to ignore Torrington's continual nods in the direction of his mentor. In particular, he shares both Kelman's demotic prosiness - a sort of parody of fine writing meets Rab C Nesbitt - and his highbrow literary leanings. This might be the Gorbals, and the banter might be exchanged on the steps of tramp-haunted urinals, but the reference points are Nietzche, Pascal, Chekhov and Sartre ('JPS').

Set in the Sixties, when the tenements are going down and the populace is on the move to Sir Basil Spence's 'Big Stone Wigwam in the Sky' (the ill-fated Hutcheson Redevelopment Plan), Swing Hammer Swing] is less a novel than an enormous, rambling monologue. Its charm lies in its sheer discursiveness.

Thomas Clay, the book's rueful protagonist, is nothing but a victim of contingency. Seen at his various occupations - in pubs, visiting his wife, prematurely admitted to the maternity ward with high blood pressure, looking for a job, committing guilty adultery with Becky McQuade, and (naturally) thinking about his unfinished novel and the sinister gentlemen on his tail - he is at the same time an excuse to let a vast collection of Glaswegian bar- proppers and cinema attendants on stage to perform.

Clay's digressions can occasionally become over-elaborate. A row of shops, for instance, is never simply a row of shops. Oh no: 'baker, fruit-shops, fishmongers; banks, dairies, butchers'. His brother-in-law's remark about a pram takes a paragraph of laborious decoding. Even a casual visit to a junk shop grinds to a halt in minute documentation. This occasional static feel, though, is largely redeemed by the vigour of the style. Torrington's prose is defiantly eclectic: some of it from Hollywood, some from the comic books, the usual Gaelic obscurities ('a crabbit wee nyaff') and a sprinkling of English idiom. In an inspired moment he manages to harness three dialects (Yorkshire, Merseyside and Cockney) into a single sentence: 'Nowt wrong with that. But worrabout the wurkers? Nuffink doing.'

Vigorously written and with some engaging set-pieces, Swing Hammer Swing] could have been shorter, but it is certainly something more than generic. This seems a good point, too, to tip one's hat to the novel's publishers. 1992 has seen the founding of several original paperback fiction lists, not all of them wonderfully successful. With first novels such as Livi Michael's Under a Thin Moon, Nalinashka Bhattycharya's Hem and Football, and now this, Secker's has been consistently excellent.