Author and winner of 1992 Whitbread Prize
Born: 31 December, 1935, in Glasgow.
Died: 11 May, 2008, in Paisley, aged 72.
WHEN Jeff Torrington won the prestigious Whitbread Book of the Year award in 1992 for his debut novel, Swing Hammer Swing!, he was fted by the London literary establishment as the epitome of the working-class Glaswegian done good. "The poor provincial peasant, metaphorical straw in his hair, grabbed the golden egg from under the astonished gaze of the gathered luminaries," wrote The Scotsman's literary editor, Catherine Lockerbie, at the time. "The papers bathed in sunsets of purple prose as eager southern hacks, clutching translation manuals, trooped to his council house door."
"We didn't get a lie-in for weeks," said his wife, Margaret, "what with the postie ringing the bell with another sack of (fan] mail."
Torrington was already 57 at the time, forced into early retirement by the closure of the Linwood car plant in Paisley and by the onset of Parkinson's disease, and when he and Margaret flew to London to pick up the 22,500 Whitbread cheque, it was their first-ever flight. Asked by a London book critic why it had taken him 30 years to write the novel, set in the crumbling Gorbals of the 1960s, he reputedly replied, with the same wicked humour he gave to his characters: "Ah couldnae find my pencil." In reality, he had written "four or five" versions before he settled on first-person narrative for the hero, Gorbals father-to-be Tam Clay, in a tale compared by many critics to James Joyce's Dublin odyssey Ulysses.
He wrote only one further novel, The Devil's Carousel, in 1996, in which he drew on his career at the Rootes/Chrysler car plant to paint a dark but often hilarious tableau of the life of car workers on the carousel, the assembly line. "I wanted to show what can happen to a man when he is trapped into a system," said Torrington, who had spent much of his life in that trap. With dark humour, the book reflects factory life, its debilitating effect on workers and families and the inevitability that when their plant is doomed, so are they.
Jeffrey Torrington was born in Glasgow's Gorbals on Hogmanay 1935. Diagnosed with tuberculosis at the age of 13, he was taken out of school and sent to a sanatorium in Shield Street, Govan, where he spent most of his time buried in books he found there or in the local library, becoming inspired by the works of Jean-Paul Sartre, Nabokov and Hemingway. "TB was just like cancer today," he once said in an interview. "It was a killer. Of course streptomycin came along in the nick of time and I was saved." His long convalescence also got him thinking about religion. He became an atheist, although he preferred to call himself a "humanist".
He had spells as a film projectionist, a postal worker and a fireman before getting on the Linwood "carousel", but he began writing in his spare time and attended various writers' groups, including one in Paisley Central Library started by the writer James Kelman, who would become his lifelong supporter and friend. He began work on Swing Hammer Swing! but the novel might never have seen the light of day had Kelman not swiped 200 pages of his manuscript and shown it to a publisher. It tells the pun-filled story of unemployed would-be writer Tam Clay, who is watching the only world he knows – the Gorbals – being torn down around him while his wife, Rhona, is in the maternity ward. Everyone's to be moved to new high-rise council estates he calls "punishment blocks".
"It is the spirit of Glasgow distilled into 400 pages," enthused one critic. "Each tiny drop intoxicating – and thus to be slowly savoured – but you can't help just necking half the bottle at one go. No-one has ever encapsulated so much of the language, humour, attitude, philosophy, character and restless energy of the dear green place (Glasgow)." As Whitbread Book of the Year 1992, it beat the shortlisted novel Poor Things by Torrington's friend and fellow Glaswegian Alasdair Gray, and it had a clear influence on a new generation of writers from Duncan McLean to Irvine Welsh.
In 1996, it was turned into a stage play to great acclaim by Giles Havergal, then director of Glasgow's Citizens' Theatre, with Alastair Galbraith playing Tam. The book was also serialised in Glasgow's Evening Times.
Torrington finally completed and published his second novel, The Devil's Carousel, in 1996 despite difficulty in typing caused by Parkinson's, which increasingly limited his ability to write thereafter. He is survived by his wife, Margaret, sons, Jeff and Andrew, and daughter, Ruth.