It took Jeff Torrington 30 years to write his award-winning first novel Swing Hammer Swing! He hasn’t hung about with his second. a hard- bitten portrayal of life in a car factory, based on his experiences at Linwood’s doomed Talbot works. He speaks to Kathleen Morgan.
itting in the living room of his Linwood house. Jeff Torrington says: ‘l‘ve got second book syndrome.’ He is concerned abottt the anticipation surrounding the publication of his latest novel The Devil is Carousel. The faltering sense of self- belief is characteristic of the man who took three decades to complete his first novel. On the sideboard behind him is a photograph taken on one of the biggest days of his life. when he was awarded the Whitbread Prize for Swing Hammer Swing.’. ‘lt encourages you. it makes you feel you must have some talent.‘ he says quietly.
Swing Hammer Swing! was an instant success. selling out in many bookshops by the time Torrington won the £20,000 Whitbread Book of the Year award in I992. Its descriptions of a lost week in Glasgow‘s Gorbals. as its tenements tumbled around the ears of a community. propelled Torrington froin unknown writer and redundant car worker to one of Britain’s most talked about novelists.
That was three years ago. Since then. he has learned to cope with the whims of a national press that beat a trail to his home in Linwood. near Paisley. embraced him as a working class hero and left him in a thundering silence to begin his second novel. He has also had to deal with the progression of Parkinson’s Disease. diagnosed seven months before he was made redundant from Linwood’s doomed Talbot car factory in 198]. It makes typing difficult and when Torrington is tired. he is shaky on his feet and his speech is slurred. None of that masks the infectious and mischievous sense of humour that marked Swing Hammer Swing.’ and makes him such good company.
With his wife Margaret’s help. 60-year-old Torrington has worked around his disability. spending hours each day when he is able. working on his word processor. ‘It helps because of my obsession with cditing,’ he chuckles. no doubt remembering writing seven versions of Swing Hammer Swing.’. The resulting second novel is a portrait of the soul- destroying existence of a group of car factory workers. the same existence that for eight years
allowed 'l‘orrington to support his fatnin while knocking his first novel into shape.
Anyone expecting the warm sense of humanity that ran through the murky streets and dodgy closes of Swing Hammer Swing! could be disappointed. The Devil's (‘arousel pares away the sense of comradeship and blind optimism that pervaded would-be writer Thomas Clay’s experiences in 1960s (iorbals. This is life on the production line. where there is little relief from mind-numbing boredom. except the odd strike or a game of dominoes. Workers are suspicious of one another and a climate of back-biting eases the monotony of factory life. Beneath the black sense of humour that pervades is a feeling of desperation. ‘I wanted to do something different from Swing Hammer .S'wingl.‘ says 'l'orrington. ‘lt
‘When I walked into the car factory for my interview in 1973, there were people playing chess, it was so leisurely.
JEFF TORRINGTON FEATURE
combination of bad management, isolation from subsidiary factories, huge production costs and ongoing labour disputes. buried it within the factory’s first few years.
By the time Torrington had given up hisjob as a Post Office telex operator in Glasgow for a wage increase of £10 at the Linwood plant. the rot had set in. ‘Wben l walked into the car factory for my interview in 1973. there were people playing chess. it was so leisurely.’ he remembers. ‘Within 24 hours of starting. I realised it was a bad job, but because I was a shop steward in the Post Office. [ didn’t get taken back.‘ Steve Laker. the telex sequencer for Centaur ear factory in The Devil's Carousel. gets that same sinking feeling on his first day when he is warned the plant is about to go 'belly-up‘. He dismisses the impending closure. saying: ‘They‘ve been saying that since Noah felt the first raindrop.‘
As shop steward at the Linwood plant. 'l‘orrington had urged his fellow workers to fight a closure that was on the cards years before. ‘I knew it was going to shut when one of the plant managers stood at the gates of the factory and said that Linwood was the lynchpin of the UK operations.‘ says Torrington. ‘It was double speak.‘ The 4700-strong work force voted by a 2—] majority to reject the STUC’s advice to fight. The factory's management was offering ‘golden' - or as 'l‘orrington puts it. ‘leaden‘ —— handshakes. If the plant’s run-down was smooth. the workers were promised a redundancy package. Without that. the future looked bleaker than ever.
(.‘limaxing in what was dubbed ‘thc sale of the century'. when the factory's machinery was auctioned off. the closure was a huge blow to the west of Scotland. For 'l‘orrington. it was eclipsed by the knowledge that he had Parkinson‘s Disease. The symptoms had begun a few months earlier with a tremor in his arm — one that was to make hisjob as a telex worker. sending instructions to the production line, increasingly difficult. After being diagnosed in October 1980. he struggled through. and
was the idea of factories being . _ was made redundant the inhumane places to work in . . . w_'""" 24 “Furs.” following May with his fellow I thought people should be told Staman I reahsed 't was workers.
about what happens.’ a bad job.’ Following a year of
A collection of stories that stand by themselves — some have already been published independently — The Devil 's Carousel is a snap-shot look around what could be any British car plant in the l970s. 'l‘orrington takes us from the telcx room. where he himself worked. to the ‘widow' — the assembly line — to MAD. the main assembly division and Siberia. the sales compound. He takes us into the lockers of workers whose main source of stimulation is stealing car radios; the water tank where one character drowns himself. and Boag‘s Gallery. the inspection booth plastered with ‘tit fodder".
'l‘orrington lives a couple of miles from the wasteland that once housed Scotland’s only car factory. Renamed the Phoenix Business Park. it now attracts shoppers and workers to the Asda. McDonald's. office blocks. DlY store and bingo hall that huddle together in one corner of a largely redundant redevelopment space. There are no traces of the industrial dream that was born in I963 with the launch of Rootes car factory. That faded long before the plant was shut twenty years and two owners later. A
depression. Torrington returned to writing and his own lynchpin. Swing Hammer Swing.’. Only when his friend and former tutor, Booker Prize-winner James Kelman. wrenched the manuscript from him and sent it to a London publishing house. did
Torrington let go. Months later he and Margaret. who had typed the 407-page
manuscript for him. were on a plane to London and the Whitbread award ceremony.
At that stage. Torrington felt he had achieved his life's ambition. Now he is not so sure. Besides thinking about writing children’s books. he is already writing a third novel, to be called The Mask Manipulator or The Twins Goliath. lts central character will be an artist who loses control of his arm and his ability to paint after being shot in a bank heist, finally rediscovering life through writing. Asked if there might be parallels with his own experience. Torrington smiles and says: ‘There could be.‘
The Devil '5 Carousel by Jeff Torrington is published on 15 April by Seeker & Warburg at £15 hardback and £9.99 paperback.
The List 5-18 Apr 199615 I