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An Audience with Graham Swift at the Edinburgh Book Festival

ByGeir Darge

Aug 23, 2016

There was a lot at play as the lights dimmed in the Baillie Gifford Main Theatre. For starters this was the Edinburgh Book Festivals opening gambit; the first big name to be welcomed to the stage. Just shy of its 20th anniversary, the Edinburgh International Book Festival is revered as the largest of its kind in the world and consequently has a reputation to uphold. More poignantly however was the tension that can be felt throughout all the vestiges of the Edinburgh art community; that of what a post-Brexit Edinburgh Festival looks like.

No better a man then than that titan of British fiction, Graham Swift to put us all at ease and open the Book festival in quiet style. Indeed, before we had had more than a mere introduction, the 67-year-old voiced a plea to the Scottish people to ‘never enforce a border for books’ for literature does not adhere to ideas and ideals of nationality or cultural identities. For Swift fiction transcends the constraints of politics to take a sort of humanitarian role within society.

This of course, comes as no surprise to anyone who has read the likes of Last Orders, Waterland, Shuttlecock and the title we were here to discuss, Mothering Sunday. Within these novels the primary concern of the narrative is to explore, in great depth and with remarkable insight, the way in which disparate characters’ deal with one another and one another’s worlds.

In this most recent novel we are presented with the collision of our protagonist Jane Fairchild, a maid in a stately home and her lover, a neighbouring aristocrat Paul Sheringham. Within the period of just a few hours on a Glorious March afternoon in 1924, the extraordinary past and future lives of both these characters spills out from the confines of Pauls bedroom on a day known Mothering Sunday.

What came to preoccupy a large amount of Swift’s interview and the Q&A afterwards was how he had come up with the idea. In looking at his other books this short novel (for future warning, the use of Novella is blasphemy to the author) compares awkwardly; its length, bluntness and raw sexuality all come as a shock to readers who are used to the mild narratives of Tom Crick, or Prentis’ world of thrilling espionage.

The answers to the many questions that attempted to unravel the mystery of Mothering Sunday were never quite clear; the idea had seemed to come without warning. One-day Jane Fairchild was born into the author’s mind and from thence came her story. Although this answer didn’t quite satisfy much of the audience’s curiosity, it contained a wealth of knowledge about how the author writes; Swift does not write stories about characters, he writes lives.

Moreover, this particular life, that of Jane Fairchild, is one that carries quite a heavy-handed message: that finding words, playing with them, exploring can be one of life’s greatest joys. The central storyline of the novel concerns itself with Jane’s journey to becoming a writer; the way in which words come to her and how these words come to lift Jane out of poverty. This is clearly one aspect of the novel that brings his own experience in line with that of Jane’s. Although Swift enjoyed a good upbringing and stellar education, his discovery of writing fiction brought him the same joy that it did his protagonist and similarly provided him with a future was obscured from sight until 27.

What was perhaps the most intriguing part of the experience was feeling the normality of a man who’s writing prowess is profoundly abnormal. Swift was engagingly friendly towards the nervous chair, Rosemary Goring, as well as accessibly insightful, when questioned by his often over-zealous audience.


Image courtesy of Kim Traynor

By Geir Darge


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