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.
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.
‘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.