Last Orders is a tale of four men who embark on a day trip to the seaside. Actually there are five people in the car that takes them from London to Margate though one of them is not in a position to contribute much to the conversation, he being recently cremated and present only in the form of a box of his ashes.
Jack Dodds, a butcher by trade, may not be alive but he is very much the focal point of this trip. It was his dying request that his son Vince and his three best mates Ray, Lenny and Vic – scatter his ashes from the jetty at Margate where he spent his honeymoon. As they journey from Bermondsey to Margate with detours to the Sailors’ Memorial at Chatham and Canterbury Cathedral, each of them reflects on his friendship with Jack and their own lives. Their stories are revealed in short chapters told from one or other of the characters, stories which intertwine and build gradually to a picture of men who are in denial about their lives.
There’s Ray, an insurance clerk whose wife dumped him for another man. He gets sympathy from the others because for many years he hasn’t heard from his only daughter who lives in Australia. Actually the breach is Ray’s fault – he is the one who stopped writing, unable to find a way to tell his daughter about key events in her life.
Vince, the chauffeur for the day, had a troubled relationship with Jack throughout his life. It stemmed from his resentment that he wasn’t really Jack’s son but taken in by him and his wife Amy as a baby when his own family were killed in a bombing raid during World War 2. Vince was in effect a substitute for their real child who was born severely retarded and whom Jack could never accept. As Vince grew up he railed against the presumption that he would become a butcher just like Jack. Instead he turned his hand to car mechanics, much to Jack’s dismay even though the business proved successful.
And then there’s Lenny, a fruit-and-veg stallholder who has good reason to be angry with Vince. Having got Lenny’s daughter pregnant Vince disappeared into the Army instead of doing the decent thing and marrying the girl. It suits Lenny to blame Vince for the fact his daughter is now shacked up with a guy who is serving a prison sentence. What he doesn’t admit even to himself is how much he played a part in her unhappy life by forcing her to have a backstreet abortion.
All these undercurrents rise to the surface as the quartet make their circuitous pilgrimage to the coast. It’s left to Vic, an undertaker, to act the peacemaker though even he cannot prevent a standoff fight between two of the other men. All four of these men have experienced disappointments and frustrations but they won’t admit it to themselves or to their companions. They draw a discrete veils over many events like Ray’s affair with Jack’s wife. Only the reader can see the truth by piecing together what the men say – but even more significantly what they don’t say. For this is a novel where despite the multiplicity of voices it’s the silences that tell the real story.
In some ways Last Orders is quite a simple book about rather ordinary people, the kind you can meet every day. It’s very much a male world – Jack’s wife Amy is the only female character of note – dominated by the pub and the armed forces in which all these men served (the title Last Orders has connotations of military orders as well as Jack’s instructions). It’s a little bleak in some parts but lightened with the occasional moment of black humour when the guys became resentful they were not getting their fair share of time carrying the plastic bag containing Jack’s ashes. By the end they are beginning to look to the future and the possibilities remaining in their own lives: Ray for example thinks it’s time he visited his daughter in Australia while Amy who has visited her daughter in her institutional home every week for 50 years, decides it’s time for a parting of the ways.
It was hard to feel much connection with these characters initially because the narrator kept changing so often with only subtle changes in their speech patterns. I found I had to keep checking the chapter headings to make sure I knew whose story was being told. But as the book progressed it became clear that this lack of clarity was by design – just as I couldn’t sort out their lives neither could each of these men. Maybe everyone of us has a jumbled life. We’re too close to it to make sense of it ourselves so we just relate the pieces and let others put it together to make a cohesion.
Last Orders by Graham Swift is published by Picador. It won the Booker Prize in 1996 though true to form, not all the critics thought it was a good choice. One Australian professor pointed to the similarity of the plot with William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Swift responded to the critique by saying his book was an “echo” of Faulkner’s but nothing more.