Simon Humphreys is a qualitative market researcher, fiction reviewer for the Mail on Sunday, freelance journalist and the finest porridge maker in England. Here he writes about Graham Swift's Waterland.
Simon Humphreys on Waterland by Graham Swift
It is 24 years since the original publication of Waterland. Margaret Thatcher had just cut her patriotic swathe through the Falklands and was about to take on Scargill and the miners; el Nino first raised its head in the global consciousness; and Graham Swift had just appeared on the original Granta Best list of Young British Novelists on the basis of two impressive novels, The Sweet Shop Owner (1980) and Shuttlecock (1981).
Compared to the more trumpeted writers of that gilded generation - Amis, Barnes, Ishiguro, McEwan, Boyd, Rushdie et al - Swift has always ploughed a more singular fictional furrow. The least autobiographical of modern novelists, whose fiction is palpably imagined rather than reconstituted from his own experience, and seemingly awkward in the unforgiving glare of publicity, Swift in his quiet way has perhaps never received the acclaim accorded to the other precocious alumni from that original Granta list, despite scooping the Booker with Last Orders. Yet the understated simplicity of his writing is artistry of the highest order, seamless prose that effortlessly penetrates the interior lives of his varied protagonists; his novels have tended to refract life through a glass obliquely, but always seem to celebrate the poetry and the messiness of ordinary lives.
Waterland, with its distinctive cover photo of a luminous eel, was the first hardback I ever bought. I was steeping myself at the time in as much contemporary fiction as I could get my hands on after the more traditional canon of the university syllabus; the novel made an enormous impression upon me and though I have subsequently read upwards of 2,000 novels, it has lingered in my mind more than most. I have followed Swift's career closely ever since - in a consistently distinguished oeuvre, the only dud I recall is the disjointed and disappointing Ever After - but Waterland has remained my favourite; and yet, for reasons I can't quite fathom, I have never re-read it until this summer, when, with half the country under unprecedented levels of flood waters, it seemed timely and apposite to do so.
Swift's narrator is Tom Crick, a 55-year-old history teacher in (then) contemporary South East London. Crick has fallen victim to another scything round of education cuts and is about to lose not only his department but his job; at the same time his wife, Mary, has recently been apprehended by the police for the abduction of a child outside a supermarket. As the fragile order of his life appears to be crumbling around him, he decides to 'go off the curriculum' and regale his class of recalcitrant Sixth Formers with stories of his native Fenlands. These rich, evocative tales of the eponymous waterland, which form the bulk of the novel, are embellished with his philosophical musings upon history and story-telling, with parallel digressions into the real historical events of the French Revolution and the First World War. In this multilayered narrative, with its non-linear, fragmented structure and unreliable narrator, Swift is attempting nothing less than an examination of his own craft, of the very nature of fiction.
Set predominantly in the Cambridgeshire Fens around the fictional town of Gildsey in 1943 where Tom's father, Henry, is the lock-keeper on the nearby river Leem, the novel opens with the discovery of the body of a 16-year-old boy in the lock one July morning. What appears to be a simple case of a drunken misadventure becomes for the 15-year-old Tom Crick, as he seeks the truth behind the accidental drowning in the canal, a journey of discovery across more than 200 years of family history of three local families from different sides of the tracks: the landowning, urban Atkinsons; the farming Metcalfs and the humble, rural Cricks. Like the rivers that meet in Gildsey the histories of the three families ultimately converge in an unlikely, unhappy alliance. These excavations of his troubled ancestry lead Tom to a profound understanding of his 'potatohead' older brother Dick, an educationally subnormal giant of a man who spends his working hours dredging the canals.
This is a novel with a multitude of themes - the relationship between man and the natural elements, class and birthright and the phlegmatic quintessence of Englishness – all seamlessly enveloped within the structure of a compelling narrative involving murder, incest, suicide and madness, where personal stories are subsumed within a wider history of the area: the story of how land was dredged and reclaimed from the sea and the ongoing process of sustaining this delicate balance between human endeavour and natural forces. Here, too, is everything you needed to know about eels, beer making, phlegm, the history of the river Ouse, lock keeping and, of course, water.
Swift's genius in this book is not merely in keeping so many balls in the air at the same time but in making none of it appear contrived: out of his supremely inventive fiction he has fashioned a version of reality that is so utterly convincing in its detail that he has perfectly captured the spirit of place, created a landscape that literally drips with authenticity and peopled it with his usual array of idiosyncratic English characters.
Waterland opens with a celebration of the magical art of fiction and concludes with a watery grave. It is supremely appropriate that Swift's chosen epigraph, 'Ours was the marsh country', is from the memorable opening of Dickens's Great Expectations - another writer who caught the waterlogged essence of Englishness. Swift keeps fine company.