In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick

SurrogacyTM

Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Involuntary MemoriesGaby Wood
Close

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website (www.lrb.co.uk — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.


  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Close
Last Orders 
by Graham Swift.
Picador, 295 pp., £15.99, January 1996, 0 330 34559 1
Show More
Show More

My great-grandfather’s watch did not confer immortality ... it was proof against age and against all those processes by which we are able to say that a man’s time runs out, but it was not proof against external accident.

‘The Watch’ in Learning to Swim

For when a body floats into a lock kept by a lock-keeper of my father’s disposition, it is not an accident but a curse.

    And Freddie Parr’s father ... is asking Why-whywhy. No repetition of that neat word ‘accident’ can stop the siren in his brain.

Waterland

And I see them all hanging up before me, like clothes on a rack, all the jobs, tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, and you have to pick one and then you have to pretend for the rest of your life that that’s what you are. So they ain’t no different really from accidents of birth. I didn’t know that phrase then but I learnt it later. It’s a good phrase.

Last Orders

‘Accident’ here means what we call an accident when we can’t face the fact that even this was predetermined. Henry Crick in Waterland is too superstitious to believe in accidents. Pumping the water out of the dead body, he tries to pump away ‘all the ill luck of his life’; that took his wife, that ‘had his first son born a freak’. But even ill luck sounds too much like accident. ‘And more curses,’ his son continues, ‘more curses perhaps, as yet unknown.’ The watchmaker, who believes clocks not only record time but cause it, invents a watch which will prolong his life. But he falls prey to something which is beyond his control, something bound to happen to someone who tries to play God. In Graham Swift’s latest novel Vince remembers thinking that answering questions about what he wants to be is dangerous: making one choice, communing just once with fate, will seal his identity for good. The ‘accident of birth’ he has in mind is that of his adoptive sister, born handicapped. He is like her, he thinks, not ‘funny in the head, but like her for having been played a trick on’. Swift writes about accidents, plays with the idea of them, but leaves little room even for apparent ones. He seems to be a master ventriloquist, trying new voices with every book, but he crafts them rather than speaking through them. At his best, he can tell the stories of people’s lives with a crisp lyricism, but he rarely allows them to be lived; he arranges them, lays them as one lays a table.

Swift is best known for his novel Waterland (1983), a family saga told by a history teacher thought to have ‘flipped’. About to lose his job (‘We’re cutting back on history’) after his wife steals a baby, Tom Crick tells his students stories and histories, ‘those most unbelievable of fairy tales’, adults’ own lives. The Fens, ‘a landscape which, of all landscapes, most approximates to Nothing’, becomes subject, setting and metaphor for his story of murder, madness, intoxication, abortion and natural history. Silt and eels are vehicles for the telling of history, and the narrative twists and washes in and out of the chapters.

Before Waterland, Swift had written two novels, The Sweet Shop Owner (1980) and Shuttlecock (1981), and a collection of stories, Learning to Swim (1982). The two early novels (and to some extent the stories) document the lives of people so ordinary they are almost invisible. The recording of the daily life of Willy Chapman, the sweet shop owner, and of Prentis, a clerk who works in the archives of the police force, is not a form of realism but tends to the macabre. The characters are reminiscent of Gogol’s: so straight, so sure of their sensibleness they must be mad. They are obsessed with minutiae – ‘every day had its pattern and was spent in making patterns’ – and this compulsion becomes a way of reining in memories, which are, nevertheless, literally jogged (‘But do I say remember? This was not so much a memory as a pang’) and emerge almost despite these strait-laced characters, always slightly out of reach of their understanding. Prentis regularly goes to a mental hospital to visit his father, a war hero he can get close to only by reading his book about his wartime exploits. The father ‘is not insane’, Prentis tells us, he just has, ‘like people in ordinary hospitals, some particular thing or other wrong with him’. His father’s particular thing is that he doesn’t speak at all. ‘That is all that is odd about him.’ But Prentis has ‘long, rambling conversations with him – like Marian with her plants’. By the time you get to the plant analogy you know this guy is crazier than his dad. It is this tug of war between the compulsive and literal minds of the tellers and the sprawling, uncontrollable histories of their emotions that creates such taut, crisp language, jittering on the edge of sanity.

In his first book Swift writes: ‘wars pass but sweet shops remain.’ The crisscrossing of wars and sweet shops, history and stories, big and small, has continued to concern him. And so has the idea that wars both pass and remain. All his books have been fused histories in the making, memories in the telling. What has passed in time will not set the mind free. War figures in all the novels except Ever After – it is experienced, missed, overshadowing or looked up to. Swift returns to it continually, with a gritty nostalgia, and a sense that, even when war is described by those who’ve been through it, what is being told is the story of an older, of a father’s generation.

Waterland has overshadowed Swift’s two subsequent books, Out of This World (1988) and Ever After (1992). With Waterland his stiff voices were unleashed into a much richer character (still one on the border between control and madness), and the success of this must have freed him to try new narrative voices. But Out of This World has a slightly gimmicky structure, alternating between two voices, both unconvincing: an ex-war photographer and his rebellious daughter on her analyst’s couch. It tries too hard, falls for obvious narrative tricks and lacks the delicacy, lyricism or starkness of Swift’s earlier books. Ever After is told in the voice of a pompous and verbose academic, whose irritating flaws are not distanced enough from the author to be effective.

In many ways, Last Orders is a return to Swift’s work before Waterland. Arranged in short bursts, the memories of each of a dead man’s friends alternate with scenes from the present. Jack Dodds, a ‘master butcher’ from Bermondsey, is on the bar of his local pub, in a jar of ashes. He was about to shut the shop, buy a bungalow in Margate and start a new life with his wife, when he went down with ‘a touch of stomach cancer’. In a letter, in ‘handwriting gone all wispy and weak and thin’, he had asked for his ashes to be ‘chucked off the end of Margate pier’. His widow Amy can’t bring herself to go, so Jack’s mates Ray (who narrates the linking segments), Lenny and Vic, and Jack’s adopted son Vince all drive down to the seaside in a flashy blue Merc borrowed from the yard Vince calls his ‘showroom’. The occasion, which brings them all simmering together in a constricted space, makes them look back on their lives, think about their relationships with each other and mourn Jack in their own ways. Ray, a part-time insurance clerk who spends the rest of his week at the races (Jack nicknamed him Lucky Johnson), remembers meeting Jack in the desert during the war and seeing him years later in hospital. Lenny, who runs a fruit and veg stall, remembers Jack taking his daughter to the seaside with Vince when she was little, and gets more and more angry at the way her life has been ruined. Vince thinks about V8 engines, white-walled tyres, the deal he’s planning to do on the Merc. He remembers meeting his wife, and seeing Jack on his deathbed, looking more like himself though he should have looked less so, ‘and it goes right through me, like I’m hollow ... that I haven’t got his eyes, his voice, his bones.’ Vic is the undertaker responsible for Jack’s cremation, ‘looking the best of us all, by a long chalk’. He’s ‘neat, straight ... not short on dignity’. His coffin shop has always been across the street from Jack’s butcher’s; he could pass it on to his sons but lingers in the office because this is ‘the age of widows in the making’. They all stop for lunch and a drink in a pub, make a detour to visit the war memorial at Chatham for Vic’s sake (he was in the Navy), Vince and Lenny have a fight in the rain, they drop in at Canterbury Cathedral and finally get to Margate. Woven in and out of the reminiscences are clues, then facts. Vince survived the doodlebug which killed his parents and was adopted by Jack and Amy (he resents not being told until later, resents being wooed as the next butcher in line). Before he ‘ran away to the Army’ he made Lenny’s daughter pregnant. June (now 50) is Jack and Amy’s handicapped daughter whom Jack never acknowledged and whom Amy visits in a home twice a week. Ray started offering Amy lifts to see June, and their Thursday-afternoon meetings progressed into an affair.

What Swift seems to like about the structure of a story is its jigsaw nature: not just that it should fit, or that it should be divisible into parts, but that a piece you shuffled past in the box ten minutes ago happens to slip neatly into the top left-hand corner. We are back in the realm of organised accident. Even the characters’ voices, at their most down-to-earth in this book with their Cockney twang, can seem tricky, and the slang is sometimes forced. The book begins: ‘It ain’t like your regular sort of day.’ Are we free of the staginess of the voices in Out of This World, the indulgent complication of Ever After? How will the winding poetry of Waterland or the obsessive precision of Shuttlecock fit into these fast South London dialogues? The fact is, as Swift writes in Waterland, ‘there are very few of us who can be, for any length of time, merely realistic.’ Vic, only marginally more articulate than the others at the beginning, is let loose into ‘but the outcast and the outlawed have to die too, the shunned and the forgotten, and somewhere there’s a reluctant relative who has to step uneasily forward.’ Aside from the occasional flip over the border of the ‘merely realistic’, the controlled tone of the book and its arrangement into short segments is most reminiscent of the short stories in Swift’s virtuoso collection Learning to Swim. All these stories except the last are told in the first person, and they have a similar quality of speech. The sentences are rigorously lean: ‘The day they let me out of hospital I went for a long walk round the streets. People looked very remote and sorry for themselves.’ ‘I remember that day for two things ... Everything was sharp and conspicuous.’ ‘Every July this occasion was observed with punctilious sentimentality.’ As in the first two novels, the narrative voice is so deadpan it makes us edgy. In the stories, unlike Last Orders (which sometimes reads as if Swift didn’t know how good he was at implication), clues are left as clues, never spelled out. But their true eeriness comes from the extreme repression of the narrators.

Swift’s control in Last Orders comes out in the structure, in the neat arrangement of memories circling round each other. As with most of Swift’s work, memory is a form of telling and here it is also the stuff of each section. But although these memories are carefully constructed, they are interrupted by other, seemingly involuntary ones. Memory is both planned and unexpected, controlled and accidental. The short bursts in the voices of different characters are framed by scenes from the present or told in the present, but the episodes are too short, too spattered to be like ordinary flashbacks. The whole book is a reversal of Tom Crick’s idea that ‘history is a thin garment, easily punctured by a knife blade called Now.’ In Last Orders ‘Now’ is punctured by the past, the characters go over their lives – as in Waterland, ‘something in nature wants to go back.’ The narrator of ‘The Watch’ says time is circular: ‘the longer you live, the more you want to go back, to go back.’ But here, despite the circling in and out of memory, time is linear. The reminiscences seem further away in time the more vividly they are recalled, and Jack’s friends seem to get older as they muse, adding minutes while they think of past ones, as if remembered time worked at twice the speed. Swift is perhaps best at creating sell-contained episodes, which then glow into times before and after. Another side to this talent is his extraordinary ability to invent involuntary memories. They are detailed and sensory, but also inappropriate, as if the rememberer were caught unawares, the narrative jolted out of itself. In ‘The Hypochondriac’ the doctor who refuses to treat his patient M. remembers finding his cat dead on the kitchen floor: ‘He walked away, but paused momentarily, after three or four steps, to look back at me over his shoulder. And as he did so I suddenly had a strange, intense memory from when I was a boy.’ The passage ends: ‘as I crept out of the kitchen door and down the side path, I had looked back, involuntarily, as if in some way the dead cat might rise to expose my guilt and cowardice, like the ghost of a murdered corpse.’ In another memory M. turns out to look like a corpse the doctor saw in an anatomy class long ago, which was said at the time to resemble him. The cat, he finally remembers, was dissected in front of him by his surgeon uncle. Since the doctor continues to ignore the significance of his memories, and gets ill as a result of these and other hauntings, they seem like nasty accidents, bits of gothic spillage from his mind.

In Last Orders the moments of memory aren’t of such extreme events, they are jerks backwards, often dissolving into a watery nostalgia. In a wonderful passage in which Amy remembers being in Margate with Jack, so much is implied, folded in, that the episode seems to sit apart from the rest of the book for a while. Jack and Amy have just been to a fairground, it is the honeymoon they never had, but reality interrupts and Amy realises she must choose between Jack and their daughter June. This is like a rewriting of a scene in The Sweet Shop Owner where the beautiful girl and the man ‘who’s as simple as she’s cracked’ are on their honeymoon, ‘seen already as if in a frame, as if in a photograph in an album’. She, who reads the paper, says: ‘There will be a war, Willy.’ The characters in Last Orders are different, as is their world and their relationship. But it is from those slightly cramped beginnings that this passage emerges, free-floating and also careful, as if the memories are almost too much. And something like accident here leads to a lovely anachronism. The postcard Amy is imagining is not one she has known but one she will be part of in the mind of the author, as he looks back on her generation. We picture these people, remember them almost, from the muddy yellowed images of our parents and grandparents, at the end of the jetty, at the edge of a war. We associate Margate so strongly with that time, that fizzled out working class who went for holidays there, it seems, for a moment, that this is all there is to write about England – that salty, sticky taste of seaside towns and lives gone wrong.

And just for the time it took to walk to the end of that Jetty I felt, everything is still possible, everything is still floating, the water lapping and slapping beneath us, and I didn’t notice, or care if I did, that the smile he’d put on his face was now like the smile on one of those ducks. It was only when we got to the end that I thought, This isn’t true, it’s only a picture, a seaside postcard, and maybe that’s what he was thinking. How could I laugh and smile and act like life was a holiday? My whole stupid idea of going to Margate. The breeze was flipping my skirt. Men were eyeing me.

Lucky teddy bear. I thought, just to be free again, with just the breeze and the night and the sea and the men looking. Having your pick. As if this was your starting point once more ...

There was a strap rubbing on one of my shoes, my new shoes, so I gave him the teddy bear while I stooped down to fiddle. Maybe I just wanted to hide my face. And I think even as I handed it to him I knew what he was going to do. There he was for a moment, a grown man, on the end of a pier. He looked at it for an instant like he didn’t know why he was holding it, like he didn’t know what it had to do with him. Then he stepped nearer the railings. And then there wasn’t any teddy bear, there was just Jack. Goodbye, Jack.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.