Sue Wilson talks to JeffTorrington, j Gorbals-born winner of this year’s
, Whitbread Prize for his : richly-wrought first novel.
The gestation period ofJeff'I‘orrington‘s first novel was longer than most. He began it in 1960. and the sideboard of his Linwood home currently bears a congratulatory card from his eldest son recalling the many occasions during his childhood when he was told to shush because Dad was writing. Congratulatory. because despite ' numerous hold-ups (various jobs. including railwayman. banana-packer and cinema projectionist. the need to cut about 150 pages and choose between three different endings) Swing Hammer Swing! was finally published this year to widespread critical acclaim. crowned last month when it won the Whitbread First Novel Prize. And deservedly so: the novel is a hefty. dense. meticulously-crafted cornucopia of wisecracks. metaphors. puns. philosophical references. crystalline images and dazzling linguistic ; virtuosity. glued together with generous quantities of humour. anger and hope. The setting is
Jett Tonington: controntation with oblivion
; Glasgow. late ()(Is. in what’s left of the (iorbals. where 'I‘orrington was born in 1935. The demolition gangs have moved in (one of the titles
, hammers) and our man 'I‘homas (flay. an as-yet
unpublished novelist. is among the dwindling few
yet to be shunted off to the new ‘Legoland’ schemes ofCastlemilk and 'I‘oryglen. Aided by imaginary back pain. Clay. whose pregnant wife. Rhona. is in hospital with high blood-pressure. has helped himselfto a ‘sabbatical‘ from the treadmill
: ofdegradingly menial jobs. We witness a few
ordinary yet extraordinary days in his life as his
mind scampers around the knowledge that time is
I running out before he is pushed by family nagging
back into ‘gainful' employment. before his house
is reduced to rubble and he. too. is sent
: ‘Clay's been stripped down to the bare
: minimum.‘ says Torrington. ‘Even the shell of his
; house is threatened: the hammer‘s pounding away
E relentlessly. grinding everything down — a simplistic metaphor for time. ifyou want. this
hammer reducing everything to dust. Clay‘s
j floated into this confrontation with oblivion.’
And if this is sounding a bit heavy. rest assured
I that it‘sanything but.
Along his Joycean way Clay keeps bumping up against phrases. incidents and images which set off chain reactions in his hungry writer‘s mind.
; conveyed in a rich. idiomatic. Glaswegian
stream-of—consciousness. Torrington is
marvellously gifted at revealing the esoteric or abstract through the rough fabric of the everyday.
The novel embodies 'I‘orrington‘s passionately-held belief that language’s full richness should be available to all as of right. and that there's a lot more to communication than Standard English. ‘I love the different colours of language. the way it can be almost like a stained-glass window.‘ he says. ‘Vocabulary's everybody's. nobody‘s got the right to say. ‘this is how we should all speak.“ But a lot of people are afraid to use words, you hear them speaking such chopped-off language; to say something ornate is seen as a bit suspect — “you swallowed a dictionary or something?" There‘s a kind of resentment about using good words,
accurate words. that persists among working-class people. and I feel that’s why we’ve lost so much
cultural ground — pe0ple are losing the ability to
speak to each other.‘
‘ Swing Hammer Swing! ispublished by Seeker &
i Warburg (1117. 99
__ I’m a believer
j There‘s something deliantly
unlashionable about 29-year-old novelist Joseph O’Connor, despite the
, exploits at his notorious sister
Sinead. Coming from Dublin no longer holds the same cachet it did 30 years ago, and O’Connor maintains a stubborn resistance to being part at a casual new apolitical lit-set.
Not that his writing is the stud oi stern dogma and socialist treatises. His lirst novel, Cowboys And Indians, was a bitter-sweet tale of a Dublin trendy struggling to stay alloat in London medialand. Like all lirst novels it had autobiographical aspects, although O’Connor is reluctant to reveal to what
extent. ‘My parents have read the book
3 and I don’t want them to find out which
hits are true,’ he admits. ‘But there’s ; bits ol autobiography, stuil other people have told me, stult you hear and read in the newspapers, but it’s essentially liction. The details are just that, details.’ The novel was D’Connor‘s attempt to update the Irish emigrant story and give it a 90s leel lacking in so much
86 The List 18 December 1992— 14 January-i993 '
? 4 ' ' . Joseph O’Connor: contentious stutl
contemporary Irish writing. ‘There’s a certain kind of Irish writing, about the
emigrant experience during the 50s.
Wheneveryou read anything about it, it
was still set in Kilburn and it was still blokes working on the building site, and dreaming ol going home and
sitting by the tire. That sometimes still
goes on butthings have changed, and : nobody was actually rellecting that.
Nobody was writing about a younger generation at emigrants, and what was going to happen to them. lwrote it really because that’s what I would like
to read about.‘
Many oi the themes ol the novel are explored in miniature in True Believers, a collection at short stories that includes the startling The Hills Are Alive, a violent love story about the gay relationship between an IRA volunteer and a British soldier. Contentious stult, to saythe least.
‘Well nobody's threatened to kill me or anything yet,‘ he says. ‘It‘s basically a iantasy. When you‘re brought up with the Irish situation, I think you do have to say something about it. You can’t sit in a pub in Dublin living a wonderful literary liie, when 150 miles up the road people are shooting each other. My Ieelings about the North are exactly that, Ieelings, and nothing more, butI do think everyone should throw their sixpence worth in, and that’s mine. It’s a sad, sad Iantasy about what happens when people are driven apart by completely false divisions.’
O’Connor isn’t alraid ol using his position as a writer to make comments
'on political situations, although
Northern Ireland doesn‘t exactly fall into that category. ‘When you look at the times we’re living in, people do have to try and make a stand,’ he asserts. ‘There’s always this pose with some writers, of “I don’twant to get involved, I want to be an individual”
I and all that, but I don’t think writers are ’ privileged individuals. I still have to pay my poll tax. I still believe all those unreconstructed old socialist things, you have to organise, communal action is a good thing and all oi that. So it someone asks me to take a stand on something, I usually do. I don’t on the North, because it’s so tucking complex. It’s very hard to reduce 800 years at history to a slogan, whether it’s “Brits Dut’ or “No Surrender”. You have to be carelul with the words.’
Well more carelul than sister Sinead at any rate. ‘I guess like most people, sometimes I agree with her and sometimes I don’t,’ he says cagily. ‘I talkto her about it, but it’s the same in every iamily, we don’t always agree.’ And let’s not say any more about Sinead please, is the unspoken message.
His next novel, Desperadoes, due next year, is a step away trom the Irish experience, set in Nicaragua in 1985. This, D’Connorleels, will be the real test at his ability as a writer. ‘There’s a lot of truth in the idea that everyone can write a lirst novel,’ he says. ‘It's the second one that’s tucking horrilying.’ True Believers is published in Flamingo paperback (£5.99).