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Graham Swift: Last Orders

Last Orders is a simple story of four men who are taking the ashes of their deceased friend, Jack, to the rather scuzzy English seaside resort of Margate, to throw them off the pier (at the request of the deceased). Though they are going from Bermondsey to Margate, rather than from Southwark to Canterbury, the idea of a pilgrimage is clearly intended to be there. Indeed, they do stop off at various sites along the route, including Canterbury (where they visit the Cathedral). As with Chaucer’s pilgrims, there are stories to be told – not Chaucerian stories but their own stories (and the stories of a few others closely connected with them). The book follows the four men in their journey, interweaving the stories and gradually bringing out not only the complex interrelationships between them but, inevitably, the fact that all is not well.

What makes this book so interesting is firstly how it evokes a changing view of England, from the England of World War II to the England of nowadays – the comparison between the four older men (including the deceased) and their traditional occupations (fruit and veg, undertaker, rag and bone man, butcher) and the fourth man on the journey, Vince, Jack’s adopted son, who has gone into”the motor trade”, specifically because he did not want to become a butcher, is very strong. Indeed, we learn that Jack was losing business to the supermarkets and was going to have to retire for this reason. Of the four older men, three have both wife and children problems. Only Vic, the undertaker, of whom we learn less and whose two sons (both in the business with him) we rarely see, seems reasonably happy. Jack and his wife have a mentally handicapped daughter, whom Amy, Jack’s wife, regularly visits but whom Jack has never visited. Amy has a brief affair with Ray while visiting. Ray is estranged from both his wife and daughter, while Lenny’s son-in-law is in prison. All of this, of course, gradually comes out during the course of the book.

Swift’s novel is not sexy nor is it the defining work on the human condition. However, it works because the people in it – ordinary people – are convincing and real. Last Orders won the Booker Prize in 1996 but not without a certain amount of controversy, as it was said it borrowed too freely from William Faulkner‘s As I Lay Dying. While there is a superficial resemblance in the plot, they are very different books and, as Swift himself pointed out, Faulkner did not exactly invent the idea of the living honouring the dead. Judge the book on its own merits. It may not be as good as Faulkner’s great work, but it is still very good.

Publishing history

First published 1996 by Picador