Last orders

In the last months of his life, as he lay dying in his hospital bed, my best friend Glyn wanted to read nothing but Agatha Christie. Despite his Oxford education and a brilliant mind, only Dame Agatha would do. Before each visit, I would scour charity shops and grab a bunch (there were always plenty available). “Ah, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd,” he would say with real pleasure. My mother, on the other hand, in her final months, wanted Alexander McCall Smith. She found them reliably good-natured and his Scotland Street series reminded her of her upbringing in Edinburgh and a particular pleasing Scottish sensibility.

Proust's cork-lined bedroom reconstructed at the Musee Carnavalet in Paris (thanks to Stephen Rees/ Flickr)

Proust’s cork-lined bedroom reconstructed at the Musee Carnavalet in Paris (thanks to Stephen Rees/ Flickr)

On a much more banal level, a recent cold turned me into a couch potato. Wintry weather made an appropriate backdrop so I had no problem lying on the sofa as the rain beat against the window. I watched old favourites and ones I’d missed, from a couple of Woody Allens (‘Interiors’ still as pretentious as I’d thought it was when it came out in 1978 but the actual interiors still look wonderful) to more violent numbers – the recent Kray Twins yarn ‘Legend’, Spielberg’s ‘Munich.’ I was content, happy to yield to the stories being told and soothed by good performances and interesting locations. It crossed my mind that, were I dying, I’d spend a great deal of time watching films, or possibly lots of boxed sets.

But then I thought of Glyn and my mother, and others I’ve known who are no longer here, and I think books are indeed the final refuge, when the pleasure of snuggling down in your bed isn’t so much an option as a necessity. Opening a book invites you into a new world in a different way from a film. You choose the pace to some extent and certainly how people look, and you become absorbed in other people’s inner lives which no amount of voice-overs and meaningful glances can replicate. At the moment I’m enjoying Egyptian academics in the USA in Alaa Al Aswanyi’s excellent ‘Chicago’ but a few days ago I was totally captivated by Kate Atkinson’s pin-sharp description of wartime London in ‘Life After Life.’ Who knows where I’ll be this time next week (but Sebastian Faulks is sitting on my bedside table).

I’ve been having an odd time with fiction this year. A few times I found myself plodding through novels that weren’t giving me any pleasure. I won’t name them because I know that sometimes you return to a book you didn’t finish and suddenly you find it rather good. It’s the importance of timing. This year I’ve started and NOT FINISHED three novels and that felt rather daring. I’ve always believed you should finish everything, including the food on your plate and certainly every drop of wine in your glass. To not finish a novel feels disrespectful to the author and yet there was a tremendous sense of relief in casting a book to one side and saying, in a rather curmudgeonly fashion, “Just cannot be bothered.”

That’s why, on your deathbed, I’m sure you choose something totally reliable. Not the best books ever written but books that make you feel comfortable, knowing that everything will turn out all right in the end. I don’t want my final days to be marred by umming and aahing over whether or not to finish a novel. I shan’t start Proust if I haven’t already read any. I will be looking for something comfortable, and I suppose that means writers like William Boyd and Ian McEwan who create novels that never fail to invite me in and let me stay until the end. Maybe a Thomas Hardy, but certainly not a Dickens. Then again, it could just be the moment to start Dame Agatha.

A grim thought, perhaps, but what book would be your last?

tomb gates on Lake Orta

tomb gates at Lake Orta


Categories: WritingTags: , , , , , , , , ,


  1. My first instinct on seeing your post heading ‘Last Orders’ was to think of the Fred Schepisi-directed film starring Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins. Loved the film, haven’t read the book. Must do! Thanks your lovely piece. It reminded me of discovering Canadian writer Carol Shields after my father’s death 25 years ago. I first delved into her Pulitzer Prize winner ‘The Stone Diaries’ in 1993 then worked my way backwards, then forwards. I still have all her books – and I shall re-read them one day. Soon.

    • My mother bought me ‘The Stone Diaries’ and told me I must read it. Of course, like so much, all I can remember of it was that I thought it was great. So thanks, it’s obviously time to revisit some of her other books (and include ‘Last Orders’ in the list).

      • Carol Shields was one of my all-time favourite writers! Thanks for reminding me….definitely worth a re-read. (But on my deathbed will surely return to a comforting classic of childhood – Anne of Green Gables or Little Women. 😉

      • Ah yes, the comfort and charm of familiarity. (And maybe dying your hair green in one final gesture?)

  2. What a great question! Dad always wanted PG Wodehouse when he was in hospital but the last book he read was the second volume of a biography of Coleridge by Richard Holmes. My mother always had a few Agathas lurking about. This is probably cheating but I’d probably settle for a few Tintin books or some Armistead Maupin or …sorry this is going on a bit, it would have to be Faultline by Sheila Ortiz Taylor. I read that in the early 80s and found it funny and magical. I just loved it.

    • A fitting book for your father, I think, although I do hope that didn’t leave a third volume unread…Ah yes, Armistead Maupin’s an excellent choice and plenty of them if one happened to linger on. (I’ll have to seek out Faultline.)

  3. What a great question.

    I know this will elicit groans from your literary followers, but for me it would be the Harry Potter books, specifically the last 3. I don’t think she is the best writer but I love her creativity and I would want to be whisked into such a creative world as I leave this one.

    But my very last book would have to be ‘Gone with the Wind’ – still my favourite book of all time and one which reminds me of university, one of the best times of my life, and You!

  4. My last book would be something from my childhood by Enid Blyton.

  5. T S Eliot Collected Poems.

  6. I’ll probably re-read One Hundred Years of Solitude and other Gabriel Garcia Marquez works, though I have had to suspend reading his biographical ‘Living to tell the Tale’ because I was totally bogged down in it. By the way, I have just read and thoroughly enjoyed ‘Loving Le Corbusier’. Congratulations on such a beautifully written book. It was fascinating and very entertaining, Colin, and a proper good read

    • That’s serious stuff but might certainly make one feel grateful for everything. And thanks so much for your lovely words re my novel – feedback of all kinds but especially the good kind means so much. This might be asking too much but if you could manage a few words in a review on Goodreads or Amazon then I’d be very grateful – it just helps with the promotion. A proper good read – that’s lovely!

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