BOOKS / Slow and steady wins the race at last: Marianne Brace talks to Jeff Torrington, whose first novel won the Whitbread Prize this week

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The Independent Culture
NO ONE WAS more astounded at Jeff Torrington winning the Whitbread prize than Torrington himself. Much has been made of his humble origins. He has been feted as the Glaswegian factory worker whose first novel, Swing hammer swing] (Secker & Warburg, pounds 8.99), scooped first prize from under the nose of favourite Victoria Glendinning; and as an innocent who, at the age of 57, had never been on a plane before he flew to London to attend the ceremony.

The real story is slightly different, but equally surprising. Torrington is not a labourer who suddenly came out with a prize-winning novel, but an author who put in 30 years apprenticeship, and meanwhile supported his wife and three children by doing a series of menial jobs.

Torrington had tuberculosis as a child and when he wanted to become a journalist his doctor dissuaded him, saying the hours were too arduous. Instead, he worked in a whisky case factory, operating the nailing machine. Hoping to do his National Service in the RAF, Torrington was vetoed again: 'The doctor said, 'Your illness could flare up in a tropical climate.' ' So Torrington went to work on the railway steam engines, shovelling coal at four in the morning, thinking, 'Where are you now, Dr Richie?' Ten years ago he accepted redundancy from his job in a car factory when he discovered that he had Parkinson's disease.

But since his early teens Torrington has been writing, submitting articles and short stories for publication, and finding his own way through literature. The writer's father abandoned his wife when his son was still small, and at 12 years old the boy contracted TB. 'I was about a year in the house and then nine months in the sanitorium. And I never saw school again.' Despite this, he says, 'I was lucky. At the sanatorium there was a very good collection of Penguin books and I read my way through every one of them.' The habit stayed with him. 'I'm voracious, always reading,' Torrington says. 'When I was a bairn my mother would say 'Put that book away, boy.' I read anything that was available.' Not that he led a cloistered life - being brought up in one of Glasgow's tougher districts meant that he had to brave the streets. On the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, 'You'd meet a couple of boys and they'd say: Are you a Billy or a Dan or an Old Tin Can (a Protestant, a Catholic or a Jew)?' And the correct answer? 'It's best to start running, that's all,' says Torrington, laughing.

For many years, his articles and stories were rejected, but his luck changed when the Glasgow Evening Times accepted a story set in a banana packing factory. Torrington continued to write every day with growing success, but always against certain odds. 'I used to work in the living room until Margaret said 'I want that table.' I'd move my stuff to the bedroom and when Margaret put the children down I'd move back.'

Swing hammer swing] captures the atmosphere of Torrington's own milieu. Set in the 1960s, it follows would-be writer Tom Clay through one Gorbals weekend when his pregnant missus is in hospital. There's a huge cast of characters: drunken Paddy Cullen; Talky Sloan; Joe Fiducci, the Italian barber; and Big Snowy Callaghan, bouncer at the local 'geggie' (flea-pit), The Planet.

The book is extremely funny, but it is also a lament for a community of people that was broken up when the slums were razed. 'They went at it with such a zeal, smashing things that could well have been refurbished,' Torrington says sadly. 'The separation of the generations created a vacuum which has never really been filled.' At one point in the book, someone makes a hole in a frozen pond with a sledge-hammer. 'A perfect metaphor for the Gorbals clearance,' Torrington says, 'because they came here with a sledge-hammer too, smashed a hole and people then were like the swans living at the jagged edges of the ice.'

One of the reasons that Swing hammer swing] took so long to be published is Torrington's obsessive rewriting.' It had to be perfect,' he says. 'With my second novel, I think I'll have to be a bit quicker.' But although the book took many years to write, that's not the way it reads. It rattles by, the dialogue zipping along the page. And although some might find the vernacular difficult at first (Sir Michael Angus, the Chairman of Whitbread, apparently told Torrington, 'I like your book. Though I didn't understand it'), the Glaswegian patter and the varied cast of characters that speak it throb with life, and quickly seize the imagination.

MOST of the old Gorbals had been levelled by now. Housing Planners had taken up their slum-erasers and rubbed out the people who'd lived there. Some original specks still clung to the Redevelopment blueprints but these would be blown away shortly. In Scobie Street, for instance, a few commercial concerns continued to function: there was Nelly Kemp's fag'n paper shop; Joe Fiducci's barbering joint; The Salty Dog Saloon (my local watering hole); and Shug Wylie's public lavatory (Men Only) which stood out in the middle of the street almost directly opposite the Planet Cinema. The movie house was bracketed by the defunct O'Leary's betting shop and the derelict Blue Pacific Cafe, mention of which is made in local bard John Scobie's 'Ode to a Flea Ranch', where he described the kinema as being 'A crackit planet betwixt the deil and the deep blue sea. . . .'

As the car continued on its way the bulky typewriter lodged in my lap dug deeper and deeper grooves into my thighs. Eddie Carlyle just sat there, his gloved hands on the gloved steering wheel. Bugs of melted snow glistened on his dark sombre overcoat, and his tight shirt collar, as hard as cuttle bone, creaked with his every neck movement.

(Photograph omitted)