David Cruickshanks (2022) Stayin Alive. How PTSD (Nearly) Stole My Life.

Summy passed me working in Kerr’s garden in Shakespeare Avenue. It runs parallel with our horseshoe shaped street—and he stays in McGrath’s old council house, a few houses down—from home. He was taking his two sons down the road. I imagined it was to school or nursery. One of the boys fell behind, and he was acting up. Summy was firm, but loving with him.

Summy’s mum was an alkie. His step-dad was away working for the Shah of Iran. He spent a lot of his childhood looking after his wee sister, whom we labelled Janey Mongo. A version of Summy pops up in lots of my stories. Summy joined the navy. He signed on for twenty years when he left school. I remember him coming home in dress uniform and into Macintoshes Bar. We were going to the Oasis later. We told him he couldn’t go with that thing on him, but he went with us, anyway. None of us scored, but that was normal. I don’t know what ship he was on, or if he was a Falklands’ war veteran. That was normal too.

David Cruickshank’s life in Glenrothes in Fife was a version of ours. Some of my favourite books are coming of age and autobiographical: Cider with Rosie. Growing up in the Gorbals. This Boy’s Life. In the Mind’s Eye.  All Quiet of the Western Front.  War and Peace, arguably, bridges both genres. He claimed to have read it aboard HMS Fearless, on the 8000 miles journey to the Falklands. The loss of over 200 British lives came after the sinking of the ageing Argentinian ship, ARA General Belgrano. Anyone that reads War and Peace should have a medal pinned on his or her shoulders.

That’s not a very good joke. I read David Cruickshank’s book in almost one sitting. Putting one word in front of another can be harder than it looks. We become word blind.

‘I awake feeling like someone is prising my eyes out of their sockets with a rusty hammer drill, which is not as bad as I thought I would feel.’

‘I awake,’ should be I wake up, or I waken. A minor quibble. My da’s bigger than your da. But I don’t like the editing. The author, as a comedian, tries for a jokey tone. But too often no cliché is left unused. Descriptive phrases become puffed out. Adolescent lust, for example, becomes dreams about ‘motorcycle girl’. We all have them. I could tell you the names of all the girls I fancied from the age of around five. They all had Barbie hair and faces. Readers don’t need to hear about them. Strip to the boner is not always better.

‘Wee George is emerging from a sleeping bag like a maggot from a cow’s swollen belly.’

Similes that strain should be abandoned, especially if they are visual images that mix metaphors. A map of how did we get to this, with a gasp at the end.

My mum asked me to shave my da, before he died. She knew I didn’t want to do it, but I wouldn’t refuse her.  

     Lucy Easthorpe, When the Dust Settles, uses the Welsh notion of Hiraeth. A longing for home. A place that no longer exists. An innocence lost, but we can still hear the echo.

I wonder if my da had post-traumatic-stress disorder.  David Cruickshank’s book is timely. We have war in Europe, again. The Belarusian writer, and dissident, Svetlana Alexievich The Unwomanly Face of War tells of a young girls surviving the collectivisation of Ukrainian farms by eating horse shit. Around six million died. It wasn’t so bad, because it was frozen and she could break parts off. Girl soldiers, during The Great Patriotic War, who carried no weapons because they weren’t enough, and men carried them. Their job was to lag behind Russian tanks, and when they were hit, try to save the men inside, by pulling them out of the burning shell.

It’s difficult to imagine. But not for David Cruickshank. When his ship was bombed and strafed, he was entombed in a stinky room, not much bigger than a tank. If the ship had sunk, he would have died. Stress doesn’t always leave a mark on the body. But our bodies don’t forget. We have lost that innocent non-awareness. Hiraeth. David Cruickshank writes from a place of knowledge. In joining the dots, he’s too many dots. But hey, it’s a cliché, but none of us are perfect. And if I see Summy again, I’ll need to ask him about his war. Ironically, Summy was always writing a book. We thought he was a fucking idiot. Don’t get above yersel. Stayin Alive and making do are staple relatives of Scottish working-class life.      

Jeff Torrington (1992) Swing Hammer Swing!

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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.