St Andrew’s Gardens is a Grade II listed art deco building in Liverpool city centre. Now used for student accommodation, it was built in the 1930s as a council tenement block, and because of its distinctive circular shape became known locally as the “Bullring”.
In the 1980s it was still in council ownership but badly run-down – Liverpool City Council at that time had one of the highest and most poorly maintained housing stocks in the UK – and had gained a reputation as a hotspot for marauding youths and casual violence.
As an undergraduate, contrary to common sense and my mother’s instructions, I would cut through the Bullring each Friday night on the way to the student’s union with my friend Jenny (she of bat and mealworm fame, if you’ve read my post on H is for Hawk), rather than walk ten extra minutes circumnavigating the estate. Our precautions were simple: wear flat shoes, carry money and anything else we needed in our pockets – no handbags – keep keys in hand (the nearest thing we had to a weapon) and be ready to leg it at the first sign of danger. We never did see any gangs, or crime, or trouble of any kind, which didn’t stop us seeing ourselves as being incredibly brave and daring.
Much more rightly infamous tenements existed in the Gorbals, in Glasgow. That estate once held the unenviable distinction of being considered the most dangerous place in the UK, before being demolished and redeveloped in the 1960s. It is the estate’s final days that provide the setting for Jeff Torrington’s Swing Hammer Swing!
The novel won Whitbread Book of the Year in 1992 and apparently took Torrington thirty years to write so it’s probably a bit mean-spirited to say I was almost turned off reading it by the cover. The offending quote, from the Observer, describes the novel as “Damon Runyon” (an author I’ve never read) “meets James Joyce” (an author whose stream of consciousness style I find tedious, to be honest, though I realise that makes me seem less than literary).
The connection to Joyce, though, is more schematic than stylistic. As Joyce’s Ulysses famously follows Leopold Bloom through Dublin in the course of an ordinary day, so Swing Hammer Swing! follows Tam Clay, one of the Gorbal’s last residents, going about his ordinary life in the days before the demolishers move in.
Torrington’s Gorbals is peopled with an array of strange characters: Matt Lucas, longsuffering employee of The Planet cinema, who we first see dressed as a deep sea diver to publicise The Yellow Submarine film starring the Beetles (“The Dab Four” per the leaflet); Paddy Cullen, the alcoholic projectionist, who “would spend Eternity chasing a mobile pub barefooted across a jagged terrain of smashed whisky bottles”; Clay’s indomitable sister-in-law Phyllis with her “ruthlessly cropped eyebrows” and equally ruthless put-downs; public toilet attendant Shug Wylie “a man who took his job and his bog seriously”; bar-room bore, Talky Sloan “who gave capitalism laldy in the area of the pub known as ‘Commie Corner’”; …I could go on but you get the idea.
Problem is, Tam is a difficult man to like. He cheats on his pregnant wife while she’s in hospital; he poses as Matt Lucas, meaning that his ‘bit on the side’s’ violent husband will go looking for Matt, not him; and he‘s imbued with the innate sense that he’s superior to everyone around him. (Tam is a would-be writer so, to be fair, this might be an authorial in-joke.)
I generally shy away from categorising books as male and female, but in this case I might have to make an exception. Hubby asserts that men are less averse to misogynistic characters than women are, and I’ve an inkling that he’d rate this more highly than I do – making it a more a ‘man’s’ book?
Rating: ** Worth reading.