Jeff Torrington, author of Swing Hammer Swing! (1992), one of the greatest novels ever written about Glasgow and a Scottish classic, died on May 11th, of Parkinson’s disease. It is a personal favorite of mine, as many of my writer friends can testify, who have often been the recipient of unasked for copies – they should be damned grateful – copies are hard to find.
“Plots are for graveyards. I’d rather drag my eyeballs across barbed wire than read a plotty novel,” says Tom Clay, the hero of Torrington’s masterpiece, about his own book, which has yet to find a publisher. (“Yer boomerang got back yet?” asks his catty sister-in-law.) And the plot of Swing Hammer Swing!, too, is secondary. An homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, Clay has a series of encounters during the 1960’s in the Gorbals (a once notorious slum). In pubs, at funerals, with friends, enemies, whores and one-eyed men, he lies, argues, loves and reminisces the week before the Gorbals is demolished and its community scattered to “up-ended egg boxes,” a Lego-land of dire city planning.
Swing Hammer Swing! tests the reader’s patience. Writing so dense with unusual metaphors, puns, made-up words, and references to Plato, Nietzsche, Unamuno, and Pirandello requires frequent breaks for cups of tea. Pacing suffers (is it still Monday?) because dialogues are fractured by paragraphs of stream of consciousness. “Real time” feels like slow motion. Yet, if the reader allows the narrative to wash over her like rain, each sentence is a delight. “His aftershave had a camphorish pong to it, which is appropriate to someone who’d mothballed his life,” and, “Me? I’m a journal junkie, a history shooter forever craving an ink-fix. I know what I’ve got – Pepys Syndrome, that’s what.” Despite its poverty and despair, the novel, like Ulysses, ends on a long aria of hope.
Torrington’s greatest strength is his manipulation of language to capture the essence of Glasgow, a “city more into vaudeville than it was into violence.” He tends to restrict mangled English or Scots dialect to the dialogue, and keeps the exposition ‘clean.’ For example: “In his youth Talky had come across that fat slug of a word ‘bourgeoisie’ and had hungrily sank his socialist fangs into it…he could scarcely string a few political sentences together without reference to the archaic class beastie. ‘Ask yersel, why should a Londoner get three sheets mair’n a Glesga punter? I’ll tell ye why – coz that’s how yer boorjwazee gets to rule.’” Aye, you said it, Jeff.
I managed to squeeze a review of the book onto an Urbanite column last year, and here are two obituaries on Torrington, one from the Independent, another from the London Times. But its his bang-on rendering of the Glasgow sense of humor that Scots will miss. “ ‘D’you believe in this heaven’n hell stuff, then?’ one of his characters asks. ‘Aye, definitely,” his pal replies. “If it wisnae true there widnae be sausages’. ”
Well, I hope he’s tucking in to those sausages now.