Van has finished reading…Making An Elephant by Graham Swift

31 Dec

I’ve been a fan of Graham Swift’s writing for a while now. Though it was Last Orders that won the Booker the novel that really blew me away was Tomorrow. I can remember sitting on the train almost open-mouthed as I read, feeling thoroughly caught up in the world he’d created. It’s one of my favourite books. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but I’d come across his work quite a few years earlier when I bought a copy of The Magic Wheel at the airport for holiday reading. This was an Anthology of Fishing in Literature, compiled with David Profumo.
Making An Elephant covers a great deal more than just fishing, but of all the chapters in this book on Graham Swift’s life and writing, one spoke to me more than any other: Local History and an Interview. The local history in question follows a river called the Wandle. Graham Swift grew up not far from its course, as it happens did I. Apparently Lord Nelson did fish it, and John Donne possibly fished it, though I’m not sure Mr Swift did. I doubt he fished it as a boy. Even at the start of the period of this Local History (1851) the river was going into decline. I remember the nadir of this process in the 1980’s when the water was sometimes orange in colour and always repugnant. I can’t remember wasting any time dipping a net for sticklebacks there. I can say that it’s possible I have stood and fished where Donne or Nelson had though because the river is in recovery. I can even claim to have hooked one of the plucky trout that Swift mentions (though I can’t claim to have landed it – it was far too quick for me). The Chub and the Barbel have been more obliging.
The interview mentioned in the chapter’s title is one in which Swift talks about his writing day, his practices and the things that interest him. The interview took place in a pub local to him that has an interesting history in itself (also laid out in this chapter). One of the things that chimed with me is the fact that Thomas Hardy lived locally at one point; Swift talks about feeling closer to him somehow, knowing he had likely trod similar paths and it struck me that this was exactly what I was experiencing in reading this chapter. I know the places Swift talked about growing up in. I know the places he talked about now living in. But more than that I too know that he understands that electric surprise and possibility at the pull of a line. Like him, rivers get to me, too. We can get quite obsessive sometimes about our writing heroes (I wonder what Swift would think of being called a writing hero?): what their regime is; what interests them in the stories they tell; who they like as writers; who influences them as writers. This chapter particularly was a gift. Not because it opened up some magical insight into how exactly he does what he does (if anything it was more terrifying to discover that Last Orders wasn’t written separately and then pieced together but done pretty much as it appears) because it made me feel closer to someone whose work I greatly admire. It made me feel closer to a person. And not just a person, but a person who understands the particular joys of fishing that I know too.


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