An autumn morning in Ilkley, North Yorkshire. Summer has finally slunk away, and not long after breakfast I find myself tramping, in the chill grey air, down the hill to the train station with Margaret Atwood. She is dressed in sensible travelling black, but for a colourful scarf and pink-and-purple sneakers. Last night she filled a hall of more than 500 people at the Ilkley Literature Festival, nearly all of whom, it seemed, then stood in line to have their books signed. Some of them had just bought a copy of Stone Mattress, her new story collection – but most were bringing not only her new book but stacks of well-worn and clearly beloved paperbacks, from The Handmaid’s Tale to Cat’s Eye, from her first novel, The Edible Woman, to Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood and MaddAddam. The final three are a remarkable trilogy that began to appear a decade ago; a vivid, frightening, and fully realised world that is all too believably a consequence of our present existence.
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.
England and Other Stories by Graham Swift, Simon & Schuster, 288 pp, £16.99