“I had a great weekend,” I overheard someone around work enthuse. “I sat on the sofa, drank beer, ate pizza and watched sport.”
Ah, yes. The London Olympics had arrived, inspiring the nation to take up arms against inactivity and obesity by enthusiastically watching sports that at any other time they’d struggle to name.
There are several reasons why I should have disliked the Olympics.
“Because you’re a grouch,” sighed my girlfriend as I grumbled about the opening ceremony a week before it had even taken place. Which is true, but there are other reasons too. I agree with Andrew Rawnsley thatall the peripheral benefits are nothing but smoke and mirrors. Rejuvenation of urban rot, engagement with kids, tourism and the rest could all be achieved more effectively and more cheaply without a sodding great big international sporting event in the way. Hackney needs jobs and decent housing, but not the temporary or luxurious sorts being offered by the Olympics. Children need sustained engagement to take up judo else it just becomes this month’s fad. The need to meet these should be separated from the games themselves, then they are less likely to be overshadowed and the Olympics can continue without this falsity, this political obsession with added bonus, hanging around its neck.
Similarly, I find the relentless and exclusive nature of commercial partnering repugnant. “Proud to take only Visa” is, surely, illegal until competition and consumer laws. Nothing demonstrates the spirit of the twenty-first century as well as suing people getting excited about a major national event because they didn’t seek permission or pay for the privilege to enjoy themselves. It’s far more important that there waves of empty seats or that the policing is done as cheaply as possible.
But it’s the uniting the nation drivel that really grates; the idea that a great sporting event will bring us all together with our arms wrapped around each other as Paul McCartney yodels out yet again Hey Jude with its nursery rhyme chorus, the once genius of which has been degraded by over-exposure, so that even the most inebriated can managed a few neh-neh-nahs roughly in key and on time. It was not obligatory to want to watch the opening ceremony and I should not have risked being ostracised should I have chosen to not really giving a shit.
Meanwhile, back in my damp grouch cave, I’d been rereading Graham Swift. Swift was a hugely important author for me as a late teenager, early-twenty-something as I tried to figure out exactly what fiction meant to me and why it seemed so important. Novels like Last Orders and Waterland had a deep impact on my fertile imagination and sense of self. Their stories of betrayed emotions yet deep rooted unspoken comradeship and communities bound together by beer and secrets seemed to me to be the very underlying core of Englishness, a bleaker world than the one outside my window but one that perhaps ignored naive optimism and told the truth. With greed I devoured the rest of his somewhat melancholy output.
At that time I found the myriad book-piles of large Waterstone’s – the only bookseller I had access to - incomprehensible. Everything looked so deliciously tempting, but how was one to know what was a quality book or not? This was in the days before the internet where everything is reviewed at the click of a mouse; or at least before I’d realised that computer networks weren’t something made up for science-fiction. The fear of buying something rubbish, or wasting my time with poor quality fiction kept me focussed around a relatively small cache of authors: Don DeLillio (more of whom later), Gore Vidal, Martin Amis (more of him too), Graham Greene, Paul Auster, latterly JG Ballard and then suddenly I found the confidence to just randomly grab books from here or there.
The problem with reading someone’s entire output in quick succession is that you begin to spot their tell-tale signs, the voice begins to feel false, the recurring motifs grate. Swift and I feel out badly over this. Much of the action set in South West London? That’ll be the Sweet Shop Owner, Shuttlecock and The Light of Day. Lead male protagonist has a difficult relationship with their father? The Sweet Shop Owner, Shuttlecock, Waterland, Outof this World and Last Orders. Complex relationship with some sort of “spoiled” (in the sexual sense) woman? Again Shuttlecock, Waterland, Last Orders and the Light of Day. Again and again the same images, only Tomorrow told from the viewpoint of a woman during one night seems to stand apart and that, as memory serves, was just generally weak.
Don’t get me wrong, at the time I found the repetitive nature of the themes endearing, as though Swift had something important to say about such issues, or Clapham, and was encircling the subject over the course of a controlled oeuvre. It was only when I started thinking more about how one writes that I began to suspect they’re more like safety harnesses, the reliable scaffholding that he feels confident can deliver drama and so in they go to prop up the rest of the narrative.
As I reread his novels, in the chronological order (interspersed with roughly six to eight novels by other authors) I have been disappointed, not by the presence of his writerly ticks, I knew those were coming, but by how, ultimately light the collection is. I remembered each as being heart wrenching, but instead they felt flat. The Sweetshop Owner and Ever After seem to have vanished, which is odd, so I skipped those. Shuttlecock and Out of this World had good moments, but not enough. The latter felt too much like a trial run for Last Orders only with guns rather than pints. The Light of Day I found intermittingly dull as I wanted to yell at the detective protagonist to pull his socks up and that twist, that moment of horror just made no sense.
I enjoyed Waterland, although not as much as I remembered. Indeed only Last Orders seemed to retain sense of majesty and that is largely from the beautiful simplicity of the plot executed in such a masterful and ambitious fashion. It is ridiculously hard to tell a non-linear narrative (trust me, I’m working on one at the moment) and have the plot facets revealed at exactly the right moment for it to click into place, but Swift does so perfectly. He jogs up and down the timestream and the reader happily slots each section into their mental photo collection. It’s much easier to do this with film where the characters look a certain age, the background is from a certain time, but with a novel it relies on just the right words or phrases to ground it. Too much and the signposting is over cooked, too little and the reader is lost in the quantum.
It is a majestic novel, a fine example of a writer building on the success of an earlier work and hitting the peak of his powers at exactly the right moment to secure the ultimate, or at least the Booker, prize. In many ways it is an Olympian performance. The ability to transcend expectations, to achieve when it truly matters, is universal to humanity. Wherever it may be, it deserves to be admired, for the dramatic genius of life, if nothing else.
Perhaps that explains why, despite my expectations, I genuinely enjoyed the Olympics. Okay, so the opening ceremony went on too long and David Bowie’s ‘Heroes?’ has speech marks and a question mark for a reason, but with every rendition of Chariots of Fire echoing in my ears the next following morning as I cycled up the Old Kent Road a nodding smile of pride and respect edged across my face. Every implausibly scripted moment from Greg Rutherford whipping the crowds’ frenzy, Dai Green slumping dejected on the track, Andy Murray stumbling through the crowd to reach his Mum, the brotherly love tactics to secure the triathlon, Tom Daley’s groupie pool surge, Victoria Pendleton’s and Chris Hoy’s tears of difference, the sheer unbridled, disbelieving joy on Mo Farreh’s face, twice, and every horse, canoe, row, Jess, shot and judo flash as well made it something to truly enjoy and celebrate. There are, after all, truths about us to be found in the light, as wellas the dark.