With the surge in the short story’s popularity, a current trend is for all the stories to be embedded in a unifying theme. Graham Swift, as the title suggests is tackling one big old subject. As we emerge out of the postmodern age, conceptions of British society, affected by more wars, multiculturalism, capitalism, nostalgic notions of dear Blighty have never looked so fractured. And let’s not forget UKIP’s emergence on the scene, as they capitalise on this. Swift, instead of trying to answer any questions is, if anything, admitting that he doesn’t know himself, after watching the England he has written about over the years change and alter irrevocably.
The works span the length and breadth of England from Yorkshire to Yeovil. But it’s not the glorious England, nor is it necessarily the ugly England, it’s just the unexceptional England. Most of the characters are older, approaching retirement, with a consciousness of their declining years, not really having got anywhere. They’re usually confronting death or trauma, something that has carried on from his recent novels Last Orders and Wish You Were Here.
In under 300 pages, there are 21 stories, which leaves them inconclusive and unresolved. Opening with ‘Going Up In The World’ , mundane England, or at least the mundane middle class lives of England that Swift wishes to capture, is laid out here. It’s an account imbued with irony as ‘going up in the world’ doesn’t refer to the meteoric success of the capitalist years in Britain but rather a window cleaning empire of the new skyscraper buildings that have left the ‘ordinary’ people behind. Charlie is reminiscing the development of his relationship with Don, and how they ended up going up in the world physically and metaphorically, and as window cleaning business might allude to, they are looking from the outside in on this new world.
But to say it’s about the mundane lives of ordinary people, it’s not on the back of mundane events, because British history is hardly mundane. War existentially hangs over the stories; like Wish You Were Here which prominently addressed grief in the Iraq war and had that element of both the fascination and celebration of war and imperialism, it is also ultimately about it’s futile and mortal effects on ordinary lives. Prominently middle-class lives like in ‘Fusili’ as a man shops in Waitrose after the death of his son in Afghanistan.
If there’s one thing the British do generally, unequivocally celebrate, it’s the monarchy. In ‘Haematology’ William Harvey, Doctor of Physic writes to his cousin Colonel Edward Francis, The Council of Officers in the year 1649. William is exiled, and although the reasons are not made clear, it’s due to some kind of heresy against the King, in the name of science “there is heresy and heresy, there is dogma and dogma.” ‘Haematology’ is not there as a wildcard, or an experimentation of form; as all the stories hint toward being written recently under the agenda of ‘England’ (there’s a disconcerting semblance in ‘Yorkshire’ to the recent Jimmy Savile scandal), it’s not there to make us aware of how England has developed, and become more liberal – it’s the opposite. This isn’t realism or a chronicle of British history, “We have no civility but a confusion of godliness and war. Such our new world,” says the exiled physician.
This slight disdain to authority permeates the stories. It’s like a rejection of their older selves, that the young people didn’t want to become, but ultimately did, when their youth had no boundaries, no preconceptions . In ‘Ajax’, the naivete of a young person, it is assumed leads him into an almost deathly, juvenile trap because of the ‘weirdo’ next door. “”I was the undoing” the narrator said.” Mr Wilkinson does unconventional activities in his underpants, unconventional for a middle class suburb in the seventies at least. I don’t want to spoil the end of ‘Ajax’, but Mr Wilkinson is effectively guilty of being a weirdo in a rigid thinking society.
It seems the small act of communication that the protagonist tries to instigate in ‘Ajax’, which he is restricted from doing, carrying it out through his fence, an obvious symbol, is something that Swift is trying to urge throughout: if only we could communicate, and cultivate our community, wouldn’t understanding and a shared history be achieved? Indeed it breaks down borders, which England certainly has a problem in coming to terms with. Weather features often, highlighting this subject; obviously England’s cliche obsession with, but captures Britain’s ‘small-island syndrome’, and it’s xenophobic fear of it’s shores been flooded. But then what is the weather but the most banal of conversation starters in England.
It’s as if all this comes to a head in ‘Tragedy, Tragedy’, this loss of meaning in modern day society. Two blokes (that is what they simply are – blokes- no other term seems fitting) discuss the way papers always relate everything to tragedy”Ever feel there’s too much tragedy about” Mick says in their blokeish, everyman wisdom, which Swift is so adept at conveying,
“Tragedy’s about acting too. It’s about stuff that’s happening on stage. Shakespeare and stuff. That’s the thing about it. It’s not real life.”
What is this real life? What is ‘stuff’? That word ‘stuff’ so perfect. The two blokes don’t know the answer, and nor does Swift. And tragedy is everywhere in apparently ‘real life’ these days. But if the novelists art is about language, and ultimately the communication of this language to his reader, Mick reflects on how he used to read the Beano as a child “Biff! Bam! Kerrzang! How I laughed” he says. This is not just another case of the kind of regression we see in other stories from the adult characters, but rather an example of how those onomatopoeic words are exactly that – words without meaning, yet they are the only ones that can or rather could invoke a genuine reaction in Mick, where words like ‘tragedy’ cannot.
Where his prose is not the wordy, or the overly figurative kind seen in his contemporaries, he constantly seems to be trying to understand the limits of language in the text; there are the accents, the double entrendre’s and Freudian slips , and playing with the sounds of words (the futility of war in ‘Fusili’, or is it the Fusility of war?). Swift’s attempts at regional accents do (maybe a slight Yorkshire bias here) sometimes descend into that Dickensian mawkishness. But again, this could just be playing with limits of language, because the stories are not just stories as shown in ‘Haematology’, or the pure dialogue of ‘Mrs Kaminski’.
But one only needs to read the epitaph from Laurence Sterne at the start (Lord, still, appropriately censored out); indeed, what is all about? Swift doesn’t deliver answers and doesn’t expect to. Instead all we can do is reflect and remember, and ultimately fictionalise like the person says at the end of ‘England’ – “He really knew, he thought, as brought his car to a halt again, nothing about it all.”
If there’s one lesson crying out from it though, it’s the lack of faith in community and communication; if we just talked, if we just communicated with one another, and opened up our own personal borders and limits we would be a great deal nearer to understanding what it is all about. These stories are, if anything, utterly humane.
England And Other Stories (274pp) by Graham Swift is out now, published by Simon & Schuster (Hardback: £16.99 ). Thank you to them for providing a review copy.