Lord of the swings
Throwing your keys into the middle of the room may be an outdated cliché but ‘wife swapping’ is here to stay. Ewan Morrison explains the rules to Brian Donaldson
Early on in Swung, messed-up protagonist David is fired via email from within his own office. This would be bad enough were it not sent in the font which David himself had created to somehow soften the blow for those at the end of a sacking. But surely that kind of thing wouldn’t go on in the real world? Well, yes it does, and it happened to the novel’s author Ewan Morrison. ‘It seems ruthless and surreal but it happened to me in New York,’ he recalls. ‘I was fired by an email sent by someone sitting three desks away. It was all Kafkaesque and hilarious.’
Both words are an apt description of Swung (the rights of which have just been bought by Young Adam director David Mackenzie), the debut full-length tale which follows Morrison’s 2005 acclaimed book of short stories, The Last Book You Read which led to him being dubbed a ‘Scottish purveyor of erudite filth.’ The novel is set among the swinging community of Glasgow’s West End, centring on David and Alice. He is separated from his wife and daughter after an inadvisable romp with a prostitute which has since led to crippling impotence. His partner Alice is haunted by past abortions while struggling to get anywhere with her art career. As his obsession with swingers’ websites escalates, they are plunged into the full reality of this erotic netherworld.
According to Morrison (who, like any writer worth their salt, has certainly done his research) the numbers of folk indulging in this game might astonish people. ‘There are two websites that quote a figure of 700,000 people who are swinging in the UK though it’s hard to pin down who is just peeking, who’s trying, who’s actually shagging. I have swinging friends in Glasgow and they say there’s maybe 500 couples who do this every weekend plus the tens of thousands who are dabbling and the many more who are just in it for virtual sex or flirting and then not showing up.’
This sub-culture can be traced back to the Second World War when American soldiers allowed their best friends to service their wives in order to keep them ‘faithful’, while it really took off in the decade of sexual liberation and throwing your keys into the middle of the room. Not for nothing was it known as the swinging 60s. But why are people up to all sorts now? ‘I think they’re tired or scared of or bored with what they see as monogamy,’ Morrison reckons. ‘They are trying to inject some of the excitement they once felt about sex back into their lives but also it’s a social thing. A lot of swingers just go out for pizza with other couples and go to the movies and maybe they’ll go back to someone’s place and maybe they won’t.’
While the sex in the book is frankly depicted it doesn’t actually feel like a book about sex. It’s more about people burdened by the heavy weights of economics, history and (sexual) politics while Morrison himself views the processes of swinging as almost banal. ‘Swingers are part of a secret society. They’re like stamp collectors meeting up at the weekend to compare Penny Blacks.’
Swung is out now published by Jonathan Cape; Ewan Morrison is at Waterstone’s, Edinburgh, Thu 19 Apr.