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 Blighty have never looked so fractured, yet so enforced. Swift, then tries to chart this chaotic sprawl and capture this land he has written about over the years.
The stories 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 the unexceptional England. Most of the characters are older, approaching retirement, with a consciousness of their declining years. They’re also 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 renders them mostly unresolved and elusive Opening with ‘Going Up In The World’ , mundane England, or at least the mundane lives of England, are laid out here. The title is ironic though as ‘going up in the world’ doesn’t refer to the meteoric success of the capitalist years in Britain, but rather a window cleaning business. Charlie and Don discuss how they ended up going up in the world physically, watching those who have actually ‘gone up in the world’, cleaning their windows for them, and looking from the outside-in.
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. As a result war existentially hangs over the stories; like Wish You Were Here, which prominently addressed the Iraq war, it had that element of both the fascination and national celebration of war, but also it’s futile and mortal effects on ordinary lives. 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” he remarks. ‘Haematology’ is not there as a wildcard, or an experimentation of form though. It is paradoxically for the now because these stories are hardly ‘real’, instead there’s a trepidation about the world Swift battles with in a meta-way, “We have no civility but a confusion of godliness and war. Such is 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 says of himself, stopping Mr Wilkinson doing unconventional activities in his underpants – unconventional for a middle class suburb in the seventies at least.
But 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. Communication breaks down borders, which England certainly has a problem in coming to terms with is Swift’s take-home message. Weather features often, highlighting this subject; obviously England’s cliche obsession with it, but it also captures a sense ofBritain’s ‘small-island syndrome’. But then what is the weather but the most banal of conversation starters in England?
As sardonic as Swift’s voice is through the stories, there is a sense of serious that he captures in ‘Tragedy, Tragedy’. Two men 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’ is 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 what would Mick’s reflection the Beano suggest? “Biff! Bam! Kerrzang! How I laughed” he says. This is not just another case of the kind of regression we see in other stories , 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. it bears repeating.
Swift’s prose is not the most figurative, but he is deeply concerned with its possibilities, limits and barriers. There are the accents (although sometimes descending into Dickensian mawkishness), the double entrendre’s, Freudian slips , and playing with the sounds of words (the futility of war in ‘Fusili’, or is it the Fusili of war?). The pun might be the cheapest form of a joke, but it has the ability to immediately change the meaning of one word into another, and Swift is at home with it.
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.”
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.