A calculated ordinariness unites the protagonists in Graham Swift’s new collection of short stories. In each of these mini fictions, as in his novels, Swift revisits his conceit of the narrator as man (or woman) on the Clapham omnibus. Invariably he endows these blank ciphers with aspects of the extraordinary — percipience, insight or understanding — or exposes them to feelings and events which place them in extraordinary positions and offer them opportunities to behave remarkably while remaining apparently run of the mill. Swift revels in the trappings of Pooterishness while denying his protagonists Mr Pooter’s silliness. His vision may be contrived but it never patronises. The experience of these stories rescues Swift’s ‘ordinary’ men and women from stereotype, a moral in itself.
That Swift should have titled the present collection England and Other Stories is, of course, significant. He has frequently been labelled a very ‘English’ writer. This is partly on account of his characters’ concern to place themselves within historical narratives — national, local or personal — and thus embrace a long continuum of a certain sort of Englishness. Several of these stories, like ‘Saving Grace’, in which the Battersea-born Dr Shah offers us his family history as a well-practised performance, reflect on ideas of nationality or place. Mostly the stories’ ‘Englishness’ is of a less concrete nature, a bittersweet quality that distinguishes much ‘English’ art and writing, a sense of loss that is nearly pleasurable. ‘We reach our peaks and pass them,’ comments the narrator of ‘Wonders Will Never Cease’: ‘There’s nothing to be done about it, but it’s a sad thing if you never even knew the peak you had it in you to reach.’ ‘Remember this, remember this, remember this always. Whatever comes, remember this,’ intones Nick in the aptly titled ‘Remember This’. That injunction might serve for all Swift’s protagonists.
Repeatedly, we see the importance of remembering, holding on, embracing without complaint the inevitability of time and its depredations. Tangible loss is woven through these varied narratives: loss of loved ones, loss of love itself, lost years. Absent wives recur — killed in a sailing accident or simply divorced. Absences inspire reflection. In many cases those absences are part and parcel of growing older: Swift’s narrators are mostly of a certain age.
Does that age imply wisdom? Overwhelmingly yes. The protagonists in these stories are mature in their outlook, honest in their estimates of themselves, in touch with the reality of their own lives. On the surface, the 91-year-old Mrs Kaminski has lost her marbles, deranged by repeated bereavement. Her chaotic outlook, with its own unstoppable internal logic, represents a reordering of chaos, safety in an insecure world. In ‘England’, Johnny Dewhurst, a black comedian from Leeds, moves seamlessly between his two personae of Yorkshireman and professional immigrant. His multiple existences are a source of wholeness, giving him an answer to every problem.
Love and sex inspire an opportunistic response in many of Swift’s characters. Affairs are easy, perfunctory, mostly guiltless. In ‘Half a Loaf’, a widower reconnects with his dead wife by sleeping with a woman half her age: as in several of these stories, his logic, understood in the context of his own thoughts, is inarguable. So easily does Swift challenge preconceptions. For all that many of his characters come close to being types, these stories assert forcibly the individual beneath the conventional exterior. He tackles suburban tragedy in ‘Ajax’. A single man, different from the bulk of the community in which he finds himself, is labelled a ‘weirdo’ and hounded from the neighbourhood. Mr Wilkinson has in fact committed a crime, but we are left in no doubt that his principal crime is his failure to conform to the mores of his neighbours.
Without linguistic wizardry, in a register as determinedly ordinary as the individuals they conjure, Swift’s short stories harpoon aspects of the human condition, the universal in the everyday. In ‘Fusilli’, for example, it is the dried pasta aisle of Waitrose which brings home to a grief-stricken father the full agony of his loss at the death of his soldier-son in Afghanistan. That ability to colour forever the reader’s perception of dried goods, at the same time as articulating emotions too strong for the narrator’s own words, is typical of Swift’s gift — one reason these stories resonate with such vibrancy.