Privet hedges: one of Swift's stories, "Ajax" is concerned with fear and conformity in the English suburbs. Photo: Getty
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Watching the English: Erica Wagner on Graham Swift

A timely collection of short stories from Swift, an author who has always held England’s landscape and England’s nature – in both senses of the word – close to his heart. 

England and Other Stories
Graham Swift
Simon & Schuster, 288pp, £16.99

David Cameron is a bit concerned, as you may have read, that we in this country are in danger of being “bashful about our Britishness”. In the wake of controversy over the reported Islamist influence on some Birmingham schools, the Prime Minister was vocal about the importance of promoting “British values”, though pinning down precisely what those are has not been entirely straightforward (there’s a very British understatement for you).

I don’t reckon Graham Swift would have imagined just how timely the publication of his collection of 25 short stories would be, although he will have known that, after September, he would have to take his chances as to whether a book called England and Other Stories would be read across the border. And no, there is no mention of Wales or Northern Ireland here. Yet this collection is a thoughtful and often moving examination of a good portion of the national character.

England’s landscape and England’s nature – in both senses of the word – have always been close to Swift’s heart, from his first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner, through to his Fenland masterpiece, Waterland, his Booker Prize-winning Last Orders and Wish You Were Here, published three years ago. Here, in a tightly paced sequence of tales, he ranges across economic circumstance and change and issues of race and class, as well as the matter of love and loss, to consider what makes us who we are.

Some of the stories are slighter than others. Near the beginning of the book, they are too often burdened by an occasionally laboured didacticism. The first story, “Going Up in the World”, introduces us to Charlie Yates, who was born in Wapping in 1951 and is 57 years old as the tale begins. His dad had been a docker and Charlie had become a roofer, eventually working on the towers that rose to the sky in the place where his father had hauled in cargo from all over the world.

Now he and his mate Don have a window-cleaning business, making those towers gleam, buying themselves a good life – one in which their children rise even farther, even faster. Don’s son, Seb, is a banker. Do the maths: 1951 plus 57 years is 2008. See where we’re headed? And fictional coincidence can be jarring. When Swift draws our attention to the amusing fact that the charming women who work together at a fertility clinic are called Holly and Polly (“I’m Holly and this is Polly. Yes, we know”), the reader is left thinking that this is not chance: this is construction.

But there’s much that is affecting in this book. “Ajax” is a tale of suburbia, narrated by a man who looks back at the boy he was and sees how his parents’ neighbour, Mr Wilkinson, fell victim to the kind of fear and conformity that is all the more frightening for existing just a few years after fascism was defeated in Europe. Here, Swift gives his tale room to breathe, so that the play of language is pleasing rather than forced. “When we say scouring powder, Jimmy, we really mean lavatory cleaner, don’t we?” Mr Wilkinson asked the narrator all those years ago. “Did you know, Jimmy, that in Elizabethan times a lavatory was called a jakes? A jakes. Ajax. Do you see the connection?” Jimmy didn’t – and doesn’t until he’s much older and realises just how Mr Wilkinson changed his life.

The strongest of these tales – “Ajax”, “Saint Peter”, “First on the Scene” and, indeed, “England”, the last story in the book – have an undercurrent of fear: the fear of saying what is really meant, the fear of standing out, which is an anxiety that might be thought of as particularly English. In “First on the Scene”, a widower walking in the woods, as he used to do with his late wife, makes a dreadful discovery and thinks, at first, that he might just step away from what he’s found – who would ever know he’d been there? But he realises: “There was something irrevocable about his being here.”

There is something irrevocable about all of us being here, this book reminds us. Wherever we come from, here we are: it is our actions and the way we tell our stories that will define us. If David Cameron wishes to consider further the notion of British values, he could do worse than turn to Swift’s compact, thought-provoking tales. They offer the complex enlightenment that only good fiction can provide. 

Erica Wagner is an Eccles British Library writer in residence 2014 and a judge of this year’s Man Booker Prize

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 23 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double 2014

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism