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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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.