A long hard road from the Gorbals leads to literary glittering prizes

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The Independent Online
JEFF TORRINGTON, who is strongly tipped to win the Whitbread Book of the Year prize this week, is a 57-year-old former car worker with Parkinson's disease. The book that got him on to the shortlist, Swing Hammer Swing], has already won the Whitbread Award for Best First Novel.

Torrington is a Glaswegian whose own life sounds pretty novelistic, almost a publicist's dream. Born illegitimate in the Gorbals, he nearly died of tuberculosis when he was 13, lives now in a council house near Glasgow, and, in retirement, produced a luxuriant, sprawling book that beat Robert Harris's bestselling Fatherland and Adam Thorpe's much-admired Ulverton for the First Novel prize.

'He and his wife had never been on a plane before they came to London for the ceremony,' cooed his publisher.

All of this led me to see Torrington as someone from another era, a cross between Little Jo, the sad slum child in Bleak House, and Jimmy Porter, the angry young man in Look Back In Anger. So it was a relief to discover that he is not a human cliche, but an ordinary middle-aged man.

Except, that is, for the way he lurched down the path to greet me, head jerking away from his body, hands in revolt, speech terribly slurred. His wife, Margaret, sat by in the neat sitting-room, silent until needed to translate when things became impossible.

He has been writing since his teens, and working on this book since the Sixties. Margaret spoke grumpily about coming home from work, when they were first married and he was on shifts, to find he had been too absorbed in writing to peel the potatoes. 'He used to write on the dressing table, in the bedroom - I'd have to clear him out into the sitting room when I put the babies to bed.'

Swing Hammer Swing] is a snapshot of Glasgow tenements as they are demolished, their inhabitants rehoused in 'Legoland', or 'Basil Spence's concrete spike, driven into the Gorbals' vitals'. A seam of anger runs through it at the 'rubbing out' of communities.

Torrington's father, a soldier, had another family a few streets away - and he 'came and went: he'd return when he had an attack of malaria, because he knew my mother would look after him'. This other family was Catholic; Jeff's was Protestant. They did not acknowledge each other, and his father was buried three weeks before Jeff, then 25, heard he was dead.

He failed the exam for senior high school: 'My education became a preparation for life in factories. You couldn't learn a foreign language, because they were too busy trying to teach you your own language.' He has since taught himself French, and says Saint-Exupery is one of his main influences, with Nabokov and Saul Bellow. Frustrated at school, he haunted the public library, taking out Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and Darwin's On the Origin of Species.

When he caught tuberculosis, 'a disease with stigma, suggestive of poverty, malnutrition, bad housing', he was not expected to live. But he was sent to a sanatorium, and, though others died around him, survived to read its stock of Penguin classics and start to write poetry, which, he says, was 'absolute claptrap'.

He never went back to school. There followed a succession of jobs - whisky crate maker, fruit porter, banana packer, cinema projectionist, railway fireman, postman, and finally in the Chrysler car plant ('the worst move I ever made'). Married at 24, he published his first short story in the Glasgow Evening Times at 27. After that, stories appeared at a rate of about one a month, there and in other Scottish newspapers. 'I always wanted to be a writer, always thought of myself as a writer. I took jobs for money, and because they were activities I could feed off.'

He abandoned writing groups five years ago because 'they generate their own morality - you end up writing for the group'. At one, though, he met James Kelman, the Scottish novelist shortlisted for the Booker Prize, who became a friend. Kelman read part of the novel and insisted on taking it to his agent, who promptly sold it to Secker and Warburg. Torrington's only regret is that he spent quite so long on it. 'I've finally realised you can't write the definitive novel. I should have let it go sooner.'

Swing Hammer Swing] is a far from easy book. There isn't a lot of plot and the language is a dense mixture of Glasgow dialect and Hollywood moviespeak. But it repays effort.

Torrington is now working on a collection of stories about the Centaur Car Company, 'half- man half-beast', and wants to write a novel about the changeover from steam to diesel on the railways. He may not beat Alasdair Gray or the favourite, Victoria Glendinning, to the pounds 20,500 prize but at least he won't have to worry about finding a publisher for the next book.

(Photograph omitted)