Glasgow über Alles

Julian Loose

  • Swing Hammer Swing! by Jeff Torrington
    Secker, 416 pp, £8.99, August 1992, ISBN 0 436 53120 8
  • Looking for the Possible Dance by A.L. Kennedy
    Secker, 254 pp, £7.99, February 1993, ISBN 0 436 23321 5
  • The Lights Below by Carl MacDougall
    Secker, 254 pp, £7.99, February 1993, ISBN 0 436 27079 X

‘Something really weird was happening in the Gorbals.’ The opening sentence of Swing Hammer Swing!, Jeff Torrington’s great, boisterous first novel, might serve as a headline announcing his Whitbread Book of the Year Award (‘Literary Outsider wins Whitbread’, ‘Triumph of Thirty-Year Novel’, ‘Jeff’s in the Swing’), or herald more widely Glasgow’s extraordinary swell of literary talent. It seems that in the West of Scotland the sounds of heavy industry have given way to a quite different rhythm, one hammered out on word-processors and tested in literary workshops. With the initial support of small publishers such as Polygon and Canongate, writers like Alasdair Gray, Agnes Owens, Thomas Healy, Tom Leonard, James Kelman and Janice Galloway have found the city a congenial location for their life and work, and their success is encouraging others.

Of course, Glasgow has always had its writers. Torrington’s late Sixties hero is himself a working-class would-be novelist, ‘forever craving an ink-fix’ and given to bemoaning the blizzard of rival authors sweeping through the city: ‘To get into the boozers you’d to plod through drifts of Hemingways and Mailers. Kerouacs by the dozen could be found lipping the Lanny on Glesca Green. Myriads of Ginsbergs were to be heard howling mantras down empty night tunnels.’ But as Torrington’s ‘sweet ’n’ sapsy’ prose demonstrates, that infatuation with America has long since been worked through. Now, like the Standard English which Gray calls ‘the English Queen’s dialect’ (and which at times he and Kelman render in phonetic speech), American usage has become just one more idiom in the rich local demotic.

To take Swing Hammer Swing! as a welcome sign of Glasgow’s ongoing vitality is not to forget that its main theme is the destruction of the Gorbals. Now 58, Torrington famously laboured for nearly thirty years on this novel charting the post-war ‘redevelopment’ of the area where he grew up. His novel was rewritten seven times, and was not so much finished as extracted from him by James Kelman. To account for the inordinate delay, the profiles have dwelt on Torrington’s colourful biography – he has worked in a banana warehouse and as a telegraphist, as a cinema projectionist and at Talbot’s defunct Linwood car plant (the basis for a forthcoming volume of short stories), and for the last decade has suffered from Parkinson’s disease. His novel has only gained by its long gestation.

Put simply, Swing Hammer Swing! describes a week in the life of Thomas Clay, as Christmas and the birth of his first child fast approach. Enjoying a dole-sponsored ‘sabbatical’ to prove himself as a writer, Tom realises his time of freedom is running out: his typewriter is in hock and no one wants to publish his novel; the doctor has him down as a malingerer; his wife and in-laws want him to be ‘sensible’, face up to his new responsibilities and take up a job in a banana warehouse; and a sinister doppelgänger appears to be on his trail, asking awkward questions. Worst of all, Tom has to witness the ‘dinging doon’ of the Gorbals and contemplate a move to one of the new ‘Legoland’ high-rises – and ‘wasn’t having your own toilet and bath too high a price to pay for the privilege of living in a cemetery with traffic lamps?’ Torrington takes ‘South City Blues’ as his epigraph: ‘They say they’re building this city/Fresh from the start/But there’s a demolition party/Working down in my heart.’ Swing Hammer Swing! is not least a great song of loss, as the hammer pulverises the Gorbals until it seems ‘the Ruskies had finally lobbed over one of their big megaton jobs.’ Torrington’s concern is for the lives that are erased along with the slums. Late in the novel, Tom climbs to the top of the to-be-demolished picture house to obtain a panoramic view of ‘the Lost Barony of Gorbals’. Those functional high-rises resemble tombstones: ‘What set the red nerves twitching was the utter contempt for the working classes which was evident no matter where the glance fell. Having so cursorily dismantled the community’s heart, that sooty reciprocating engine, admittedly, an antique, clapped-out affair, but one that’d been nevertheless capable of generating amazing funds of human warmth, they’d bundled it off into the asylum of history with all the furtive shame of a family of hypocrites dumping Granny in Crackpot Castle.’

As though words alone could extract the concrete spike that architect Sir Basil Spence has ‘driven into the Gorbals’ vitals’, Torrington sets about reanimating the last days of Scobie Street. On his several odysseys about town Tom maps out his personal landmarks: the now silent tenement blocks, the Salty Dog Saloon and Shug Wylie’s public lavatory (the ‘Bum Boutique’) standing opposite the beloved Planet Cinema (‘a big dud neon sign with a bit of crumbling cinema attached to it’). The echoes of Ulysses are hard to ignore – not only the profusion of puns, but visits to pubs and the maternity hospital, a bet placed on an auspicious horse, above all the running commentary of ‘that thought termitarium we call the brain’ as Clay ruminates on time, adultery and, in very Bloom-like fashion, tries to brush away thoughts of mortality: ‘A cloud on the horizon, though. Don’t pay attention – maybe it’ll pass over. Talky Sloan’s funeral is today. Damn. Maybe I’ll skip it. Let the dead bury the dead. Maybe he’ll not show. Talk his way out of it.’ But unlike Joyce’s Dublin, Torrington’s community is on the point of obliteration, and in this sense his project stands comparison with the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, and his funny, nostalgic, unsentimental stories of the Warsaw ghetto and his own Krochmalna Street.

The comparison with Singer suggests itself because, despite Tom’s tendency to existentialist angst and his declaration that the world is ‘a rind of corpses a half a mile thick’, somehow something more than graveyard humour courses through the narrative. In keeping with the exclamatory title, there is an exuberant sense of pulling it off, as though these fragments shored against the ruins of the Gorbals are falling exactly into place. From the opening scene of a deep-sea diver wading along the street, to ‘a sherrikin – verbal abuse, Glesca style’ around the dining table, from philosophical disputes (‘This bloke Plato – a right flannel merchant, eh?’), to the hilariously unequal encounter between a bubble-car and a man swathed in mummy bandages, Torrington translates Glasgow into ‘Laughsville’. His language is a constant delight: a stream of doggerel, quips and puns issues forth from Tom’s ‘neural trashcan’, turning old people into ‘kneecreakers’ and a decorated Christmas tree into a ‘nancyfied spruce’, while Ben Nevis becomes ‘yon chittery place where Englishmen head by the coachload in order to fling themselves from its icy ledges’. Like Kelman’s, Torrington’s success derives from his talent for reproducing the speech around him, but where Kelman’s uncompromising economy strips down his monologues to the bare demotic, Torrington cranks the verbal pyrotechnics up to the maximum.

Torrington’s deceptively off-the-cuff style (‘But where was I?’ begins one paragraph) is matched by a clever balancing act between plot and contingency. Tom ridicules the idea that novels need plot – ‘Plots are for graveyards. I’d rather drag my eyeballs along barbed wire than read a plotty novel.’ And in retrospect we can see that Swing Hammer Swing! itself moves less through a traditional narrative than by exploring the potential of one magnificently framed scene after another, exhibiting that scepticism towards conventional representation that Jenny Turner has suggested is a special feature of contemporary West of Scotland writing. The irony is that as Tom’s escapades become progressively entangled, so he falls victim to his own residual belief in plots and schemes. Death and destruction seem to dog his steps, and odd clues left in his lavatory suggest the doppelgänger is closing in. After a fling with a married woman while impersonating someone else, he meets the man he takes to be her husband, and has to pretend to be himself. When Tom and reader at last realise that the plots are indeed an illusion, it is hard not to echo his relieved exclamation:

‘What a city was Glasgow!’

This sense of a city crowded with narratives is echoed in A.L. Kennedy’s short story ‘The Role of Notable Silences in Scottish History’, where she describes walking through Glasgow as ‘strolling across a book, something big and Victorian with plenty of plots. It makes you wonder who’s reading you.’ By contrast, Kennedy’s own fiction is intimate in scale and distinctively modern in emphasis, shrugging off the consolations of plot for an uncompromising focus on the messy lives most of us lead, lives that ‘leave absolutely nothing behind’. Her first novel, Looking for the Possible Dance, suggests she also has less faith than Torrington in Glasgow as a place ‘more into vaudeville than it was into violence’. When she looks beyond her characters she sees the grim side of the contemporary city – ‘rotten ceilings, rotten windows, dog shite and needles all up your close. Rats.’

Kennedy’s novel is told in the short paragraphs and the hauntingly odd manner familiar from her prize-winning short stories, as collected in Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains. The central character is the twenty-something Margaret, and the novel consists of her memories during a train journey from Glasgow to London. These scenes from a life are strikingly drawn, but follow one another out of sequence, so the narrative seems to have become peculiarly unmoored from conventional cause and effect – rather as in Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5, lovers fly apart only to meet for the first time. Margaret grows up as a single child in an intense, clinging relationship with her lonely father; at an unspecified English university, she becomes involved in an on-off relationship with fellow Glaswegian Colin; she returns to Glasgow and work at a community centre, where she is hassled by a manipulative manager and tries to help people improve their lot, even though she herself feels ‘prematurely finished’; and then Colin reappears. Before Margaret can decide whether or not to return to him, she must make sense of her experience of helplessness faced by this series of demanding men.

Margaret’s dismally passive state mirrors her sense of the times, that ‘things were being destroyed, very openly destroyed.’ Kennedy has a convincingly sharp purchase on the haziness of a generation which feels there are no gestures left to make, and takes drugs not to tune in but simply to reach a kind of chemical peace. Margaret, knowing that life must hold out something more, looks ‘for the possible dance, the step, the move to beat them all’. She encourages plans for the Centre to hold a ceilidh, a half-ironic emblem of their ‘language less, stateless, selfless nation’: ‘here we pretend we are Highland, pretend we have mysteries in our work, pretend we have work.’ But Margaret’s relationship with Colin falls apart yet again, and the Centre will close, now that ‘communities are being phased out as barriers to enterprise and foreign travel.’

Looking for the Possible Dance may sound bleak, but while Kennedy’s strength is not for humour, she carries the reader with her depiction of mood and her eye for the striking image. Commuters waiting the announcement of their train platforms stand ‘like an operatic chorus awaiting revelations from above ... very much at peace, very focused, just a little unnerving’. That might serve as a description of Kennedy’s style at its best. As in her short stories, she is superb at evoking states of emotional fatigue or feelings of abandonment, the way a couple can find themselves hurtling from nowhere down towards the ‘Relationship Event Horizon. Zero. Zero. Zero.’

Yet although Kennedy establishes her tangential narrative style with considerable deftness, at times it seems simply an attempt to disguise an inconsequential story: ‘Even now, it seems so unclear. Why she is leaving Glasgow and possibly staying away; there must be a reason for that.’ There are other moments of flatness, not helped by obtrusive hints throughout the novel of the dark fate awaiting Colin. When we finally reach this violent climax, it seems Kennedy has mistaken her genre. Colin, for having the temerity to publicly identify a loan shark, is ‘made an example of’ by being crucified on the floor of his apartment. The shock is deliberate, and its aftermath well described, but the scene itself seems merely melodramatic: the chief loan shark is an off-the-shelf psychopath with ‘an oddly bright smile’, who tortures Colin to the music of a Mozart clarinet concerto while lecturing him on the importance of living life to the full. It is as though, in reaching for a dramatic conclusion, Kennedy has forgotten her own sense of the need to attend to ‘the huge, invisible, silent roar of all the people who are too small to record’.

The Lights Below, Carl MacDougall’s second novel, is also concerned with ‘small, unrecorded lives’ and entertains a similarly violent and unlikely scenario, but has the advantage of doing so right from the start. Andy has an unusual family history: not only was his father killed after a big win at a casino, but the chief suspect, freed after a ‘Not Proven’ verdict, confessed to Andy’s mother – and then married her. An infant Hamlet, Andy is packed off to live with his eccentric granny, who goes to work at night selling cardboard to down and-outs, ‘fifty pence a box, newspapers extra’.

As the novel opens, Andy is released from Barlinnie Jail after a two-year stretch for a crime he did not commit. Understandably bruised by this experience, Andy needs time to sort himself out. He borrows books from the library, listens to Radio 3 and works on his Open University essays, engaging in the kind of autodidacticism that seems quintessentially to do with Glasgow, a place where ‘education is seen as a beautiful thing in itself rather than a means of self-improvement.’ It is only late in the novel that he turns to investigating the question of who set him up. His search plunges him into the seamier side of modern Glasgow and the novel assumes the form of a thriller, ending with a satisfying flourish.

An anonymous review in a 1986 issue of the Edinburgh Review, that usually supportive outlet for Glaswegian writers, dismissed MacDougall, on the basis of his short story collection Elvis is Dead, as ‘decidedly a minor writer of fiction’. He is clearly anything but. In his varied and accommodating novels, MacDougall has shown an impressive range, moving confidently between diatribes on the social security system (‘a stink and a hassle and a way of life’), to long passages of dialogue where characters spill their personal histories with a refreshing lack of naturalism that recalls the work of George V. Higgins; from discursive passages on local history, to the kind of bar-room monologues which typify the spoken energy of the new Glaswegian writing, to a remarkable lyricism about Glasgow and its light.

Indeed, Glasgow is the other major character in the novel. Andy identifies the city with his lost father: his father who (like John Betjeman) pointed out that it is one of the finest stone-built cities in the world. As Andy reflects on his personal history, he also charts the city’s evolution: his grandfather worked at Macfarlane’s ironworks, which began the area’s industrial growth and the city’s first housebuilding programmes. The closure of the works signalled the end of what had been a ‘manufacturing city with an entrepreneurial base’, turning it into a place of division and despair, where loan sharks and drug-pushers represent the only growth enterprise. Murals go up depicting the industrial past, and community centres are introduced as the community itself begins to fray at the edges.

Andy’s spell in jail serves to mark a transition, as the city turns away from its manufacturing heritage and adopts the new consumerism. The city which emerges is a tourism and conference centre, ‘now sponging the tourists, tarting itself like Edinburgh’; MacDougall’s cynicism here matches that of Alasdair Gray in Something Leather, and his derision of the idea that ‘commercially speaking cultcha and tourism a the same thing’. But MacDougall’s sense of the city’s astounding resilience perhaps has more in common with Torrington’s – a vision of a city which is ‘redundant as a watchmaker and lost as Atlantis, has been destroyed and regenerated so many times, taken the wrong direction or no direction, survived and persisted, replicating itself in the image of itself’. No doubt all these writers, Torrington in particular, will find rich significance in the news that Basil Spence’s high-rises are coming down, are preparing for a final encounter with the demolisher’s hammer.