Jeff Torrington - Swing Hammer Swing! (1992)
100 Best Scottish Books of all Time
A confession: it took me what I now regard as a wastefully long time to get around to reading Swing Hammer Swing!; wastefully because I would probably have managed to read what became my favourite Scottish novel several more times had I not been so foolishly reluctant. The obstacle was one of expectation, created by the terms in which the book had been recommended – ‘it’s about a man’s house in the Gorbals being demolished’; ‘documents the end of an era, the squalor of tenement life and all that’; ‘took 30 years to write’; ‘immense achievement’; ‘ordinary chap, worked in a car factory don'cha know’ – and thoroughly cemented by its winning a major literary award.
I eventually picked it up out of a sense of Glaswegian civic duty, anticipating a dose of grim urban miserablism that would depress Maxim Gorky. Two pages in, I was swiftly disabused of my misconceptions. Five pages in I was reading through tears. Swing Hammer Swing! is the spirit of Glasgow distilled into 400 pages, each tiny drop intoxicating – and thus to be slowly savoured – but you can’t help just necking half the bottle at one go.
There is no story – ‘plots are for cemeteries’ quoth its protagonist – only the meanderings and misadventures of Tam Clay as he awaits the birth of his first child in the final few days before the world he knows is pulled down. I am not going to attempt any kind of summary; suffice it to say this is a book diverse enough to accommodate events such as Tam drunkenly stumbling into a psychopaths’ card-school before inadvertently setting fire to the place, alongside Death paying a fruitless visit to the local public toilet, or Shug Wylie’s Bum Boutique, to give it its correct title.
No novel has ever encapsulated so much of the language, humour, attitude, philosophy, character and restless energy of the dear green place. I love it passionately, though I still maintain the Whitbread judges gave it the nod for two reasons: one, they didn’t get the humour and therefore failed to disqualify it for the literary high crimes of being funny and entertaining; and two, it being the early 90s, they thought the more bizarre passages were actually a Scottish equivalent of Latin American magical realism, rather than merely an accurate depiction of Glasgow on any given Saturday night.
Further reading: The Devil’s Carousel (1996) is a surreal journey around the interconnected lives of workers in a Glasgow car manufacturing plant.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.