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England and Other Stories, by Graham Swift, Simon & Schuster, RRP£16.99, 288 pages
When he won the Booker Prize for Last Orders in 1996, Graham Swift was acknowledged as one of our pre-eminent chroniclers of the ordinary, finding the quiet drama in the everyday stuff of south London lives. “Ordinary” and “everyday” are not everyone’s idea of a good read, however. Indeed, these terms are often employed by certain reviewers in the pejorative – code for provincial, or working class – and Swift fell foul of some critics for abandoning the pastoral lyricism of his 1983 debut Waterland in favour of blokes down the pub.
His new collection, England and Other Stories, is unlikely to find favour in those quarters. But it ought to win new readers who value well-honed narrative and deft characterisation. These 25 stories are set from the 1600s to the present day, taking in the civil war, the first world war and Afghanistan along the way, but above all the huge social changes of England’s past century. Most of them brief, the longest only 10 pages, the stories are peopled by East End boys who become entrepreneurs; Britons of Indian, Greek and Caribbean heritage; those who have made it from the slums to the suburbs, all of whom face life’s many challenges.
A concise writer, Swift often achieves more in a line than many strive for in a page. Introducing Lily, young bride and soon to be first world war widow, for example – “she was eighteen. She walked down streets on her own, her skirts swung” – Swift homes in on the girl’s physical experience of youthful independence in an economical and sensual description.
He also reveals himself to be a writer of range, shaping a diverse cast of characters. Swift is as careful outlining Lily’s confusion over her shell-shocked husband as he is when showing John Eliot (“provincial lawyer, a decent fish in a smallish pond”) confronting, through conscious avoidance, his terminal cancer. Or William Harvey, Doctor of Physic, bearing terrified witness to the 17th-century carnage of Edgehill from behind a hedge. “All England is a butcher’s yard now, a very shambles? All England is a hunting ground and every man a quarry.”
Swift’s stories often turn on a key moment: words left unsaid, life’s nettles left ungrasped. Dr Harvey finds himself a royalist by chance as much as choice, and many of Swift’s characters are similarly buffeted by life’s events. Often in their fifties or sixties, these are people who are losing spouses, aged parents, adult children, or making first significant encounters with physical frailty. Swift shows us humans on the threshold, facing up to life’s shortness, or grappling with the dread fact of their own insignificance: Peggy Underwood, suburban housewife, for example, suffers the loss of her municipal gardener husband on the same day that Peter O’Toole’s demise is splashed across the nation’s celebrity-obsessed front pages.
Whether they have been hurled unwittingly to the centre of great events, or fear they may have frittered away their days at the fringes, Swift’s characters turn to philosophy for comfort. Dr Harvey opines: “There is a motion, a fluctuation in the fortunes of men, an ebb and flow, a rise and fall, beyond all issue of government or justice.” Or, more prosaic but no less poignant, Peggy Underwood asks her sister-in-law: “A state of importance, don’t we all want just a bit of it?”
Swift impresses with 17th-century poetics, and can be deft too with estuarine turns of phrase, but he’s less secure with other and more contemporary voices, the Caribbean-inflected “northern” he creates for Johnny Dewhurst, his black Yorkshire stand-up comedian, being a case in point. Stranded on Exmoor, Dewhurst bemuses his coastguard rescuer, asking for directions to “Il-frah-coombe. I is lookin for Ilfrahcombe, man” and berating the “fookin deer. Int’ middle of road. Joost standin there”, which caused him to crash his car. There is absurd comedy in the situation but Swift’s phonetic exaggerations are an unfortunate distraction.
At their best, his stories are like good poems, or strong and sweet espresso, requiring us to hold off consuming the next, to take the time to absorb. A highlight is “Saving Grace”, in which Battersea-born Dr Shah gives an account of his immigrant father, from faith in empire and loyal war service to lowly toil as a London hospital porter. Swift’s meaning here is simple: a life can be framed as triumph or tribulation, depending on how much of it you choose to tell. As elsewhere in the collection, he provides the backstory to the material comfort many of us now enjoy: the product of ambition and potential attained over generations.
“If you have people, you have life,” muses a London Cypriot barber in one of Swift’s opening tales. This strikes me as an apt epigraph for the collection; his characters’ experiences, both modest and momentous, and the clear and careful prose in which Swift renders them, pay tribute to the diversity of English lives as they are lived. The overall impression is one of abundance, of cumulative storytelling riches accrued of a series of crafted miniatures.
Rachel Seiffert is author of ‘The Walk Home’ (Virago)
Illustration by Juliana Wang