Swing Hammer Swing! won the Whitbread Book of the Year. I like whitebread, but scientists with Twitter feeds say it’s not good for ducks or swans. The latter can’t moult and the young are unable to fly. This book does fly, but doesnae go very far. It’s the Gorbals, Scobie Street, when all the houses were falling down and the less-well heeled populist sent on their way. The ne’-er-do-well narrator Tam Clay, 28, wordsmith and would-be-author is aware that Scabie Street has its faults, all of which he’s keen to document, and even the rats have tucked their tails in and, moved out, enmasse, but an invitation to visit the housing office in Castlemilk, or the option of the high-rise ‘Barlinnies in the sky’, doesn’t appeal. It’s a Friday to Friday stretch in the falling-down life of Tam Clay.
Plot is where you bury somebody so he would have the reader believe, but you can’t believe a word Tam Clay says. On the day of Talky Sloan’s funeral, for example, Matt Lucas pelted by snowballs, undisguised as bricks, and dressed in strips of sheet as The Mummy to advertise Planet Cinemas screening of a film of the same name, stumbled onto the road and is knocked down by a bubble car. But a lot has happened since the reader had come in on the opening paragraph a week and 406 pages prior to that, with Matt’s wife Rhona in the Maternity waiting to have their first child and his in-laws none too happy about Tam’s decision to devote himself to drink, and dereliction of duty and finding the right path not to work, so he can find time to work on his writing, isn’t as easy as it sounds. A problem many of us are familiar with.
Something really weird was happening in the Gorbals – from the battered hulk of the Planet Cinema in Scobie Street a deepsea diver was emerging. He hesitated, bamboozled, maybe by the shimmering fathoms of light, the towering rockfaces of the snow coraled tenements. After a few moments the diver allowed the vestibule door to swing closed behind him then, taking small steps, he came out onto the pavement which in the area sheltered by the sagging canopy bore only a thin felt of snow. Up the quiet little grave for privileged snowflakes desecrating feet had trudged a pathway which shone with a seal-like lustre.
Characters like Tam’s bosom buddy, Paddy Cullen, who ‘would spend Eternity chasing a mobile pub barefooted across a jagged terrain of smashed whisky bottles’ leap from the page, but no very quickly, because they’re usually pissed. I think this is called, indirect free style. But like the Dab Four, the Beatles 1968 hit film, which come Judgement Day they hope can save Planet Cinema shutting once and for all, all you need is love. Jeff Torrington loves his city and loves his characters. He does not bring them to life and leave them stumbling around a cardboard Glasgow mumbling like a Mummy lines nobody want to listen to. Nor does he fall from character to caricature, which, admittedly is easily done, and as Torrington tended to do in his follow up novel (The Devil’s Carousel) and which really did not have a plot, or even a story worth listening to.
Swing Hammer Swing! really does sing. If you want to know what it was like in Glasgow, in the Gorbals for the ordinary man, or even the odd woman, like Becky that bit on the side whose man beats her, then read this. If you want to know how to mix four parts hypocrisy to three parts religion read this. It’s right up there as a Glasgow and international classic alongside that jewel in the crown, Ralph Glasser, Growing Up in the Gorbals.