The Importance of History

It is a writer’s dream for his work to make it big, to create great impressions. However, reaching for the stars doesn’t always come easy. There are writers who spend their lifetimes writing and publishing great works and yet their works go unnoticed and simply gather dust. Some have even passed away before they got the recognition they rightfully deserve; Zora Neale Hurston is one example. There are also those who immediately taste success with their debut works. For British writer Graham Swift, success wasn’t instantaneous. It wasn’t elusive, either. His debut novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner (1980) received a generally favorable response from the general reading public. It was the same for his second novel, Shuttlecock (1981). It was, however, with his third novel, Waterland, that he finally made his long-awaited breakthrough.

Published in 1983, Waterland was instrumental in establishing Swift as one of the rising voices of his generation. It was a massive critical success, winning the Guardian Fiction Prize for that year. It was also shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize for fiction; Swift would eventually win the Booker Prize in 1996 with his sixth novel, Last Orders. Waterland charts the story of fifty-two-year-old Tom Crick. Tom, the novel’s primary protagonist, and main narrator spent his life teaching history at a secondary school in Greenwich. His natural inclination towards history, both local history, and family history, and also of nature, made him into a passionate member of the academe. However, his highly-organized life started to unravel.

Tom slowly found himself at an impasse. A series of personal crises started to loom above him. His marriage with Mary started to fall at the seams. They first met as teenagers but it was palpable from the onset that their relationship was forged in tumult. Their tumultuous relationship would be carried on into their childless marriage. At school, Tom was being coaxed by the headmaster, Lewis into taking early retirement. Tom, however, was cognizant of the implications of his retirement to the department he headed, hence. Should he leave, History Department will be dissolved and will be combined with General Studies. He fervently refused to take the offer. It was also increasingly apparent that no one cares about the subject he was teaching. His present class showed little to no interest in history, nor were they curious about what he was teaching. Meanwhile, Lewis, a physicist, was indifferent to Tom’s area of expertise.

“There’s this thing called progress. But it doesn’t progress. It doesn’t go anywhere. Because as progress progresses the world can slip away. It’s progress if you can stop the world slipping away. My humble model for progress I the reclamation of land. Which is repeatedly, never-ending retrieving what it lost. A dogged and vigilant business. A dull yet valuable business. A hard, inglorious business. But you shouldn’t go mistaking the reclamation of land for the building of empires.”

~ Graham Swift, Waterland

There was no for Tom who was already at the edge. In his class filled with bored and rebellious spirits, one of his students, Price, bluntly raised the question on the importance of history and history classes in today’s context. He reached the tipping point when Mary attempted to kidnap a baby. She was duly arrested and the publicity that ensued reflected negatively on Tom’s school. This only gave more reasons for Lewis to pressure Tom into taking early retirement. It became mandatory. Pressed to the corners with no further recourse, Tom finally gave in. But before he could finally wrap all things up and say his final goodbye, he has one final history lesson to deliver. Tom’s swan song formed the backbone of the novel.

Tom’s official subject is the French Revolution. However, he scrapped the traditional history curriculum as his final lecture was predicated on the story and the geography of the Fens, or Fenlands, a marshy coastal plain located in East Anglia. History remained the central theme of the story as Tom traveled back in time to rebuild what was it like to live in the Fens, the titular Waterland. From the story’s present of 1980, Tom managed to rebuild over three centuries of the Fens’ history. In vividly painted portraits, the landscape of the Fens slowly came alive. Tom dug deep into the area’s long history of flooding and the isolation experienced by the small towns in the Fens. It also covered how the wetlands are reclaimed. The darker shades of its history were rife with smuggling and a slew of illicit activities. The contemporary dealt with sluice gates, the management of gates, and of eels. The eels are leitmotifs that are recurring in the story.

In laying out the landscape of the Fens, the history of Tom’s family started to take shape. It was a seminal part of his lecture. In particular, this part of the story zoomed in on the summertime of 1943. Tom was fifteen years old and was starting to develop a consciousness about his body and his sexual desires. It was also when his relationship with Mary Metcalf started to blossom. Mary was raised by her father on his farm, adjacent to the Crick family home; her mother died of childbirth. Tom, on the other hand, has a brother, Dick, who was mentally handicapped. They were also singly raised by their father following their mother’s untimely demise when Tom was eight-years-old. Tom and Mary developed a clandestine relationship as Mary was raised in a highly regimented home where religion is a seminal part. The awakening of sexual desire, and the taste of first love, were vividly portrayed by Swift.

The exploration of the Crick’s family history, and consequently, the Metcalf’s, exposed the dark side of families that are inevitably embedded in a family’s history. Where love and acceptance should flourish, resentment, jealousy, and envy abounded. The intertwined story of the two families was not built on happiness. Deep in the family album were dark secrets such as incest, premarital sex, and abortion. The two family’s story was also riddled with mental retardation, murder, suicide, and deaths. The story of the two families underlined how the past continues to resonate in the present. For instance, abortion had greater implications as it left one character sterile. Her sterility led to post-partum depression. Her yearning for a child led her to a criminal act that would eventually land her in a mental institution. In the book’s concluding pages, we also learn how one particular death has haunted Tom all his life.

“Once upon a time people believed in the end of the world. Look in the old books: see how many times and on how many pretexts the end of the world has been prophesied and foreseen, calculated and imagined. But that, of course, was superstition. The world grew up. It didn’t end. People threw off superstition as they threw off their parents. They said, ‘Don’t believe that old mumbo-jumbo. You can change the world, you can make it better. The heavens won’t fall.’ It was true. For a little while – it didn’t start so long ago, only a few generations ago – the world went through its revolutionary, progressive phase, and the world believed it would never end, it would go on getting better. But then the end of the world came back again, not as an idea or a belief but as something the world had fashioned for itself all the time it was growing up.”

~ Graham Swift, Waterland

In the process of relating the story of the Fens and of his own family, Tom slowly built a solid case for the importance of history, and how a knowledge of it impacts our lives. His final lecture revolved around the importance of history, both world, and personal history. At times, the story gets too personal and even inappropriate for a classroom setting. No longer encumbered by the classroom paradigm, he managed to build a vivid and convincing case of how history is written all over us, of how history surrounds us. Swift further underlined history’s role by providing more historical context. Some of the events in the story were juxtaposed on seminal historical events, such as World War I, where Tom’s father fought; and World War II, where Tom also served as a soldier.

Diving deeper into history, Swift posited that history is cyclical, that in order to understand the present or even the future, one must look back at the past. As the popular saying goes, history has a tendency to repeat itself. It somehow finds its way into the present. In this respect, the Fens, where most of the story was set, slowly transformed into a metaphor. As the denizens of the Fens constantly battle against water and nature, several efforts were poured in to drain the Fens. However, water always finds a way to win, through rains and floods, some to devastating consequences. The centuries of tug-of-war is a reminder of history’s cyclical nature.

One of the novel’s facets that stood out was its structure. Rather than providing a straightforward plot with a series of chronological events, Swift built the novel by weaving in different stories, some unrelated, which formed the heft of the novel. There was a certain level of liberty that flowed in the manner by which Tom related the story of his family and of the Fens. The story floats in and out of different time frames. At one point, we find Tom talking about his shaky relationship before shifting to his experiences during the war, before, like a regular professor, segueing to an entirely different subject, such as the sex life of the eel, or even the nature of phlegm. Without preamble, he will then again move back to the start. At any given point in time, it was rarely clear or established what point of his life Tom was relating to

The narrative was all over the place. There was a constant push and pull that can add either suspense or confusion. While this can be a challenge to most, the shifting time periods underscored the undeniable interaction between the past and the present. Not a single character stood but Tom’s narrative voice loomed above the story; it was one of the novel’s unique elements. It was also his voice that reeled the readers in. The story was related primarily through a series of lectures, with some signatures of a classroom setting. There was constant digression but there was also a subtle building of tension and excitement.

“Your “Why?” gives the answer. Your demand for explanation provides an explanation. Isn’t the seeking of reasons itself inevitably an historical process, since it must always work backwards from what came after to what came before? And so long as we have this itch for explanations, must we not always carry round with us this cumbersome but precious bag of clues called history? Another definition, children: Man, the animal which demands an explanation, the animal which asks Why.”

~ Graham Swift, Waterland

Many a literary pundit consider Waterland as Swift’s magnum opus. Many have cited it as one of the best post-war British novels. This lofty accomplishment placed it in the English Literature syllabus in British schools. It was not always easy to fathom why as the story can get muddled. It also took time for the story’s message to crystallize and take a more prominent shape. However, once it did, the story started making sense.

Parts-family saga, parts-rumination, parts-literary fiction, parts-lecture, Waterlands is an amalgamation of different elements. It is an ambitious undertaking that takes someone with special literary skills like Graham Swift to produce. The story’s main motif was history, both local and family, and its place in our lives. Like most of history, the novel was bleak, further expounding on subjects such as abortion, religion, family dynamics, murder, and mental frailties. And as the story of the Fens demonstrated and as many of us have already realized, the past always comes back to haunt us, sometimes in ways we never expected it to. Waterland reminds us that history is all over us, an essential part of our life. History also has a cyclical nature. Tom’s life in academe may have come to an end but his final lecture proved to be his most personal, most relevant, and most thought-provoking.

“Children, there’s this thing called civilization. It’s built of hopes and dreams. It’s only an idea. It’s not real. It’s artificial. No ne ever said it was real. It’s not natural. No one ever said it was natural. It’s built by the learning process; by trial and error. It breaks easily. No one said it couldn’t fall to bits. And no one ever said it would last forever.”

~ Graham Swift, Waterland
Ratings

74%

Characters (30%) – 20%
Plot (30%) – 23%
Writing (25%) – 21%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

My first encounter with Graham Swift’s Waterland was in early 2018 when I came across a copy of the book in the 2018 Big Bad Wolf Sale. I never came across his name previously nor do I have any iota on what the novel was about. Because of two factors – the predominantly blue book cover and the book being on sale – I decided to buy the book. However, like most books I have, it gathered dust in my bookshelf before I finally picked it up earlier this year as part of my February 2021 Booker Prize Reading month; I was surprised to learn the book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and listed as one of the 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. I must say, I was not as engaged as I wanted to be, especially at the start. I initially gave it a three-star rating in Goodreads. The tone bugged me. However, as I reevaluated the story’s merit, I realized that there were several elements that I missed, that there was more to it than my first impression. The way the novel explored history, in all its various levels, made for a lush story. It can be a challenge but it was nevertheless an interesting story. added one more star to my original rating.

Book Specs

Author: Graham Swift
Publisher: Picador Classic
Publishing Date: 2015
Number of Pages: 355
Genre: Historical Fiction

Synopsis

Children, only animals live entirely in the Here and Now. Only nature knows neither memory nor history. But man – let me offer you a definition – is the story-telling animal.

Tom Crick is a passionate teacher, but before he is forced into retirement by scandal, he has one last history lesson to deliver: his own. Spanning more than two hundred years in the lives of its haunted narrator and his ancestors, Waterland is a visionary tale of England’s mysterious Fen country. Taking in eels and incest, ale-making and madness, the discovery of a body and a tragic family romance, this is an extraordinary novel about the heartless sweep of history and man’s changing place within it.

In the years since its first publication in 1983, Waterland has established itself as a much-loved classic of twentieth-century British literature. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, won the Guardian Fiction Prize and has been adapted into a film starring Jeremy Irons and Ethan Hawke.

About the Author

Graham Colin Swift FRSL was born on May 4, 1949, in London, England. Swift grew up in South London and received his education from Dulwich College, London, Queens’ College, Cambridge, and later the University of York. He completed his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1970 and his Masters of Arts degree in 1975.

Swift’s literary career began in 1980, with the publication of his first novel, The Sweet-Shop Owner. His second novel, Shuttlecock (1981), won the 1983 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. He made more breakthroughs with his third novel, Waterland (1983). It won the Guardian Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Often cited as one of the best post-war British novels, Waterland has been set on the English Literature syllabus in British schools. Swift would eventually win the Booker Prize in 1996, with his sixth novel, Last Orders (1996), although it was hounded by controversy. Last Orders was also a joint winner of the 1996 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction. His seventh novel, The Light Day (2003), was also shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Swift’s most recent novel was Here We Are (2020). He also published two short story collections, Learning to Swim (1982) and England and Other Stories (2014); and a nonfiction book, Making an Elephant: Writing from Within (2009). Waterland, Shuttlecock, and Last Orders were also adapted into films.

Graham Swift is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and is currently residing in London.