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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“We don’t BeLiviu”: how Romania is rising against corruption

Night after night, activists gather in Victory Square to demand the resignation of the government.

For much of the year, the large tarmac square in front of the main government building in Bucharest is little more than a glorified roundabout, busy with traffic and surrounded by towering, communist-era blocks on one side and a wedge-shaped park on the other.

But when Romanians gather to protest, as they have done these past weeks in record numbers, it becomes a place of pent-up frustration; against the ruling class, the direction in which the country is heading and the way many politicians continue to use the public purse as a source of cash for their personal use. This was not how it was supposed to be, ten years after the country joined the European Union.

On 31 January Romania’s new government, in power for less than a month, sneaked in a piece of emergency legislation during a late-night session to weaken the punishment for abuse of power, negligence while in office and conflict of interest. In effect, the move decriminalised some forms of corruption, if the financial damage caused amounted to less than roughly £38,000.

Many Romanians and international observers saw it as a brazen attempt to help politicians facing legal problems, prominent among them Liviu Dragnea, the leader of Romania’s largest political party, the Social Democrats, and the president of the Chamber of Deputies (Romania’s House of Commons). Dragnea is facing trial for supposedly getting colleagues added to the public payroll even though they do not work for the state. He is one of many public officials facing a day in court; in fact, he has already faced the courts, earning a 2015 conviction for electoral fraud that barred him from becoming prime minister despite his party’s strong showing in parliamentary elections last December.

The backlash against the ordinance was swift, as night after night tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, and, once, half a million took to the streets to protest. On 5 February, between 500,000 and 600,000 people protested across Romania, with 300,000 in the government square alone. Demonstrations have also taken place in 50 towns and cities in the country, as well as in the Romanian diaspora.

The government backed down on its immediate plans and repealed the decree, but trust was by then long gone. Protests are now in their third week and, despite snowfall, show little sign of ending.

“This government needs to go. You can’t be elected in December and have hundreds of thousands on the streets in a month,” said Dorial Ilie, a 33-year-old PR worker, one cold evening in the square.

Romanians are fed up with corruption. The country sits 57th in Transparency International’s corruption perceptions index – up from 69th place in 2014, but corruption remains endemic, and Romania is near the bottom of the list when it comes to EU countries.

Despite the efforts of the country’s much-admired National Anti-corruption Directorate (DNA), set up in 2003 and responsible for the successful prosecution of thousands of politicians, civil servants, judges and business leaders, there is a sense that the rich and powerful still operate as if they were above the law. This was certainly not helped by the attempts to change the anti-corruption legislation.

“They had been planning to do this for years,” said Dan Popescu, a 46-year-old priest protesting in the square, echoing the sentiments of many of those around him.

The demonstrations, the largest in the country since the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989, have been an impressive display of people power in a country that is increasingly using the streets as a communication platform. Large-scale protests in Romania also brought down the last elected government in November 2015, after corruption was blamed for a fire in a Bucharest nightclub that left 64 dead, and before that, mass protests during the 2014 presidential election, this time over mismanagement of diaspora voting, arguably helped tip the balance in favour of the now-incumbent, Klaus Iohannis.

Protesters are hoping for a similar impact this time around, although, having survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on 8 February, the new government shows little willingness to depart.

At the same time, most of those gathering night after night in Victory Square – as the drab square outside the government building is officially known – are still loudly demanding the resignation of the government, but would probably settle for the resignations of Dragnea and the prime minister, Sorin Grindeanu.

After so many nights standing out in the cold, protesters have become very creative. Elaborate banners filled with puns (“We don’t BeLiviu”) have appeared, as have messages written with lasers and projected on to nearby buildings. Some have shone the Batman symbol on to the roof of a nearby museum, a funny (or perhaps desperate) plea for help. The national anthem is often sung. On Sunday, a sea of protesters held up pieces of paper coloured over their phone lights to create a vast Romanian flag.

Despite these touches of humour and inventiveness, there is a steely determination evident and it has only grown since the first night or two.

On 13 February the national parliament approved a referendum related to the fight against corruption, as proposed by the protest-supporting president. But most of those on the streets these past weeks would argue that they have already given their opinion on the matter.

Many Romanians are increasingly frustrated that they have to head out to protest time and again in order to hold their elected officials to account. Few believe that the present political class can change. “They’ll try again, in another way. Maybe in parliament, where they have a majority,” said Ioana David, an administrative worker for a construction company.

Even so, she – like so many others – is likely to continue to go out into Victory Square in the days and perhaps weeks ahead, in order to make sure her voice gets heard.

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times