England and Other Stories, By Graham Swift, book review: Elegant mosaic reveals a national identity crisis

 

There is a story in England – Graham Swift’s first book of short fiction in more than 30 years – called “Remember This”. A young pair of newly-weds (Nick and Lisa) take a day off to finalise their wills and, after a pub lunch, return home to make carefree love. Struck by his perfect happiness (and reminded by the will of its finite nature), Nick writes his wife a middle-of-the-night love letter before it is too late.

Starting fluently with touching, if clichéd endearments (“You are the love of my life”), Nick hits a bout of writer’s block: “He wanted to set down every single thing he loved about his wife, every moment he’d loved sharing with her – which was almost every moment …” But how, exactly, to do this? Nick merely adds the somewhat maudlin words that inspired his literary venture – “Whatever comes, remember this” – and gives up the ghost.

It’s not hard to see Nick as one of several proxies for Graham Swift in England and Other Stories. Both are charged with encapsulating a feeling, a moment, a life and even, as Swift’s bold title suggests, a nation. Both have a gift for clear, simple statements. Swift’s prose revels quietly in clichés, proverbs, and commonplaces, constructing entire narratives around phrases such as “Going up in the World”, “Wonders Will Never Cease” and “Saving Grace”.

But Swift already knows what Nick takes decades to learn: that even the most certain and comfortable expressions can be destabilised by, and over, time. “Remember This” ends by fast-forwarding into the future. Nick and Lisa have separated, a melancholy outcome that warps the purity of Nick’s original intentions. The letter is now a “smirking” testament to a “poor, sad fool”.

England and Other Stories is not just a collection of long-unpublished Swiftean short stories – 25 in all – but a coherent, powerful, if occasionally uneven statement about English ways of life and death. Recurring images and themes abound. War is an obvious touchstone: there are stories set during the 20th century’s global conflicts, and another amidst the national schism of the English Civil War.

Separation is, perhaps, the overriding theme of England. Apart from lovelorns like Nick and Lisa, there are families torn apart by grim revelations (Clare, Larry and Eddie in the bleak “Yorkshire”), by geography (the Indian soldier whose English-born son narrates “Saving Grace”, the Cypriot barber whose gloomy reserve haunts “People are Life”) and still more by death: the lonely adult “orphan” in “People are Life”, the grieving husband in “Half a Loaf”.

The dominant Swift narrator is a middle-aged man thinking hard about the relationship between his past and an uncertain present. Most are capable, likeable, and slightly pedestrian individuals with a tendency to turn the contours of their professional lives into modest, but strangely beguiling poetry. Charlie, who makes a mint cleaning the windows of London’s skyscrapers in “Going up in the World”, describes his life in terms of rises and falls. Dr Shah, the surgeon in “Saving Grace”, embodies his vanished past (his dying father, an India he has never seen) as heart-shaped.

These inescapably materialistic dimensions lend Swift’s fictional worlds a sort of reinforced realism. This owes much to his prose which, like his characters, is neat and trimmed, but always bordering something wild. One senses Swift’s presence in the reserved precision of Vangeli, the Cypriot barber who diligently “snips” away at his customers, slowly revealing them to themselves (and us) whether they like it or not.

In this, Swift is the laureate of unassuming English understatement – what is not said, or not said loudly enough, or said but then instantly regretted. The dignified Dr Shah glosses the racism he suffered as a child through the euphemistic “disadvantaged”. Bill, the “woolly” narrator of “As Much Love as Possible”, declares himself, much to his own surprise, to his best friend’s wife, only to fret excitedly at his actions.

Best of all is the extraordinary First World War story “Was She the Only One?” which opens with the humdrum question: “Was she the only one not to wash her husband’s shirt?” Swift wrings from this a kind of desperate romanticism, then a tear-inducing poignancy, and finally an elegy to wasted lives and blasted hopes.

The result is a mosaic portraying England as a nation with a permanent identity crisis, caught between modernity and the past, tragedy and comedy. Its citizens are similarly sandwiched: between longing and disappointment, adventure and stasis, intensity and retreat. Not everything works. Some of Swift’s sexual politics seemed fanciful at best: the May-October romance of “Half a Loaf”, or the lesbian embryologists “Holly and Polly”. But this is a collection, at once elegant, humble and humane, that makes you sad that publishers run shy of short stories, and that the Man Booker overlooks the form. This year could see Swift duke it out with Lydia Davis, Hilary Mantel and Margaret Atwood. Imagine that.

Arts and Entertainment

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade

radio
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Arts and Entertainment
Dangerous liaisons: Dominic West, Jake Richard Siciliano, Maura Tierney and Leya Catlett in ‘The Affair’ – a contradictory drama but one which is sure to reel the viewers in
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Herring, pictured performing at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival two years ago
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Music freak: Max Runham in the funfair band
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
film 'I felt under-used by Hollywood'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?