A Working-Class Writer Charms the Literati

Britain's Book of the Year Whitbread Prize winner is a Scotsman who writes in the vernacular of Glasgow's former slum district

`NEVER has my flabber been more gasted," spluttered Jeff Torrington on the night his first novel, "Swing Hammer Swing!" received the highly coveted 1993 Book of the Year Whitbread Prize. He could also have been speaking about the reaction of much of the British literati. For Mr. Torrington, on the face of it, is a most unlikely man to be writing books, let alone scooping up a top literary award.

A Scotsman who grew up in the Gorbals, a now demolished section of Glasgow notorious for poverty, disease, and crime, he left school at 12 because of tuberculosis. But his stay in a TB sanatorium, by his own reckoning, was a blessing. The place had a comprehensive collection of the world's classics; young Torrington devoured the lot. When he left, at 14, the standard age in those days for working-class Scottish lads to earn their keep, he embarked on a long career of odd jobs: whiskey-crate packer, banan a-warehouse worker, postman, cinema projectionist, car-plant laborer, and the like. By his late 20s, he was married with three children to support. In between, however, he read. And wrote.

Inspired, in particular, by the works of existentialists such as Camus and Sartre, Torrington churned out a procession of short stories - only to have them rejected by editors. Then one day, a local newspaper bought a piece, for which he was paid three guineas ($5). But until his Whitbread Prize-winning novel (available only in the British edition), the sum total of his earnings from writing came to barely British pounds1,000 ($1,580).

About the time of his first modest publishing success 30 years ago, Torrington began the novel British critics are hailing as a landmark in English fiction; one aptly summed it up with: "Damon Runyon meets James Joyce."

Set in the 1960s, the 407-page tome centers around a weekend in the life of Torrington's alter ego, Tom Clay, a would-be writer living in the Gorbals, who has just had to pawn his typewriter to make ends meet, while his wife is in the hospital awaiting the birth of their first child.

Torrington's literary style is raw, ribald, and rambling. But the seemingly plotless tale - "life doesn't bother itself with plots," Torrington says - twists and turns, ducks and weaves, and what eventually emerges from the vagaries of verbiage is a gritty, graphic, decidedly idiosyncratic picture of life in a Scottish slum.

The author knows intimately what he's talking about, and it shows. The ring of truth resounds throughout the text. This, plus the mix of hard-hitting imagery with a no-nonsense surety of inventive expression, gives a kind of vibrancy that is rare in novels today.

When Torrington, for example, writes of Clay, he does not have him mundanely walking but rather "skittering" down the "streets of Crabton [a fictitious area in the Gorbals]." Equally, he describes the locality as "the kind of place you'd only visit if your plane crash-landed there. Its architectural theme was anonymity and this had been so faithfully subscribed to that even though it'd a graveyard bang at the heart of its main thoroughfare youve been hard pushed to locate it."

Torrington's work is suffused with humor - "gallows humor," as he calls it in an interview. Indeed, one gets the sense that the author views humor as the wellspring of life. Without question, it is a key underlying theme of his book. The Gorbals was, as Torrington observes, a pretty grim place. A highly developed sense of humor became an essential tool for survival. In terms of simple exigencies, for instance, no one possessed a bathtub; you used the sink or a large bucket or a public bath house for a wa sh. The toilet was outside, and typically shared with eight to 10 families. A kitchen - consisting of a small stove - was in the living room, which doubled at night as a bedroom.

Yet what replaced this unspeakable slum was, as Torrington puts it, in some ways hardly better. When the Gorbals was gradually demolished - hence the book's title, which refers to the builder's wrecking ball - the long-standing tradition of extended families living in close proximity was also obliterated. People were rehoused willy-nilly. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, grown sons and daughters no longer lived across the street or around the corner; once-strong family ties were stretched and broken.

What emerged in place of the Gorbal's tenements were high-rise crackerjack boxes. Every family now had their own proper kitchen, bath, and toilet - albeit jerry-built. And it was not long before deterioration set in: The elevator on which everyone depended was inevitably one of the first things to go, resulting in the elderly and mothers with baby buggies having to either brave trudging up and down endless flights of stairs, or remain stranded in their urban eyries.

Today, dubbed "modern slums," what replaced the Gorbals is now itself in the process of being demolished. "Swing Hammer Swing!" is Torrington's personal statement not only about life in the Gorbals, but about also what happens when city planners try to solve problems through "enlightenment" on the cheap, rather than genuinely responding to real human needs.

That Torrington completed such a weighty work is all the more remarkable given that he has been ill during the past 10 years, diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Even speaking is difficult, which means that Margaret, his wife of nearly 35 years, is always nearby to translate.

"But Jeff still has a great sense of humor," she remarks. "And his attitude toward his illness is that he will never let it overcome him. He's always fighting it, so even on a poor day, he'll set up his word processor and have a go." And thank heavens for the word processor, she says, which he acquired fairly recently. "It means he doesn't have to use so much Tippex [correction fluid]," she notes, with a laugh.

OUTWARDLY Torrington's life has changed little, despite his sudden success. But inside, he confides, winning the Whitbread Prize has brought him profound satisfaction. The British pounds20,000 ($31,600) award means he and Margaret may one day buy a car, if she obtains a driver's license. He would also like to fulfill a long-standing dream of visiting New Orleans to hear live jazz, his passion; that too, however, is on hold. He and Margaret flew on an airplane for the first time in their lives when they c ame to London for the preliminary awards dinner last November.

Still, for Torrington, one of the best rewards of all to come from his literary achievement, he says, goes beyond the merely personal. He says it has been the overwhelming assumption that only university-educated, middle-class folk had something to say worth reading: not people such as himself, who write in a colorful combination of street jargon and working-class Glaswegian, which is more comfortable for him than standard English.

"Before, it was very much: How can you be a writer if you are working class?" chimes in Margaret. "But with Jeff getting this award, working-class writers in Glasgow have been given a big boost - without a doubt."

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