Last Orders

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Overview

Graham Swift's first novel since the highly acclaimed Ever After is a subtle yet deeply felt exploration of the ways in which friendship and love are shaped by the past and by fate. At its center is a group of men, friends since the Second World War, whose lives revolve around work, family, the racetrack, and their favorite pub. Now, the death of one of them, and the survivors' task of driving their friend's ashes from London to the seaside town where they'll be scattered, compels them to take stock. Through ...
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Overview

Graham Swift's first novel since the highly acclaimed Ever After is a subtle yet deeply felt exploration of the ways in which friendship and love are shaped by the past and by fate. At its center is a group of men, friends since the Second World War, whose lives revolve around work, family, the racetrack, and their favorite pub. Now, the death of one of them, and the survivors' task of driving their friend's ashes from London to the seaside town where they'll be scattered, compels them to take stock. Through conversation and memory they trace the paths they have followed by choice and by accident: through war and its aftermath, through the dramas of their family lives and of their shifting relationships with one another. In brilliantly realized, richly humorous voices, Swift has created a narrative language that perfectly expresses not only the comforts of old habits and friendships but the profound emotional revelations this brief but far-reaching journey will bring them.

Winner of the 1996 Booker Prize

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
On a bleak spring day, four men meet in their favorite pub in a working-class London neighborhood. They are about to begin a pilgrimage to scatter the ashes of a fifth man, Jack Dodds, friend since WWII of three of them, adoptive father to the fourth. By the time they reach the seaside town where Jack's "last orders" have sent them, the tangled relationship among the men, their wives and their children has obliquely been revealed. Swift's lean, suspenseful and ultimately quite moving narrative is propelled by vernacular dialogue and elliptical internal monologues. Through the men's richly differentiated voices, the reader gradually understands the bonds of friendship, loyalty and love, and the undercurrents of greed, adulterous betrayal, parental guilt, anger and resentment that run through their intertwined lives. Each of them, it turns out, has a guilty secret, and the ironies compound as the quiet dramas of their lives are revealed. Amy, Jack's widow, does not accompany the men; she chooses instead to visit her and Jack's profoundly handicapped daughter in an institution, as she has done twice a week for 50 years. Swift plumbs the existentialist questions of identity and the meaning of existence while remaining true to the vocabulary, social circumstances and point of view of his proletarian characters. Written with impeccable honesty and paced with unflagging momentum, the novel ends with a scene of transcendent understanding. (Apr.)
Library Journal
In Swift's latest work, following Ever After (LJ 3/1/92), a group of men bound together by their experiences in World War II and their efforts to scrape by afterward join to take the ashes of friend Jack to Margate and toss them in the sea. In flashbacks, the intertwining stories of the men's lives are neatly unfolded, told staccato fashion in the intimate, slangy patois of working-class Britain. We learn that Jack and Amy's daughter was born defective, that they adopted Vince as a baby when his parents were killed by a German bomb, that Vince has twisted and resisted the family tie, and that the family struggled to better itself to no avail. This and more is told at times rather too elliptically, but the story is affecting. Big tragedies can make a grand show, but it is the little tragedies we can all relate to that break our hearts. Recommended for literary collections.-Barbara Hoffert, "Library Journal"
Kirkus Reviews
Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992 etc.) and fourth to appear here is a slow-to-start but then captivating tale of English working-class families in the four decades following WW II.

When Jack Dodds dies suddenly of cancer after years of running a butcher shop in London, he leaves a strange request—namely, that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier into the sea. And who could better be suited to fulfill this wish than his three oldest drinking buddies—insurance man Ray, vegetable seller Lenny, and undertaker Vic, all of whom, like Jack himself, fought also as soldiers or sailors in the long-ago world war. Swift's narrative start, with its potential for the melodramatic, is developed instead with an economy, heart, and eye that release (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth instead of its schmaltz. The jokes may be weak and self- conscious when the three old friends meet at their local pub in the company of the urn holding Jack's ashes; but once the group gets on the road, in an expensive car driven by Jack's adoptive son, Vince, the story starts gradually to move forward, cohere, and deepen. The reader learns in time why it is that no wife comes along, why three marriages out of three broke apart, and why Vince always hated his stepfather Jack and still does—or so he thinks. There will be stories of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms—including a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling seawaves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong.

Without affectation, Swift listens closely to the lives that are his subject and creates a songbook of voices part lyric, part epic, part working-class social realism—with, in all, the ring to it of the honest, human, and true.

From the Publisher
"Graham Swift's finest work to date: beautifully written, gentle, funny, truthful, touching and profound." — Salman Rushdie

"A profound, intricately stratified novel full of life, love lost and love enduring." — The Globe and Mail

"Swift has crafted a minor masterpiece, full and satisfying." — Edmonton Journal

"Last Orders is that rare thing: literary art. It's a marvellously constructed, delightfully written, moving story." — Ottawa Citizen

"The Booker triumph of Graham Swift's moving, effortlessly profound Last Orders is a vindication of the quiet, much-misunderstood path this fine writer chose to take after the brilliance of Waterland more than ten years ago."— Kazuo Ishiguro

"Deeply moving—. Swift has made us love these characters. The impression we carry away is not the futility of life, but the amazing courage of human beings." — The Toronto Star

"Last Orders works its magic calmly and delicately." — Montreal Gazette

"Book for book, Swift is surely one of England's finest living novelists—. The tale he tells is as affecting as it is convincing." — New York Review of Books

"An amazing novel—. A truly virtuoso performance—. A metaphor of the journey we all take." — Ann Beattie

"One reads a novel such as Graham Swift's Last Orders with a small, still sense of gratitude, somehow heartened that ordinary lives have not been overlooked, small yearnings not gone unrecorded, final wishes not been dismissed." — Washington Post Book World

"A novel of impeccable authenticity, and certainly the author's best since Waterland." — New York Times Book Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679766629
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 1/1/1997
  • Series: Vintage International Series
  • Edition description: Reprinted Edition
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 213,280
  • Product dimensions: 5.13 (w) x 7.98 (h) x 0.64 (d)

Meet the Author

Graham Swift is the author of five other novels, including the acclaimed Waterland, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and won the Guardian Fiction Award. His work has been translated into more than twenty languages. He lives in London, England.

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Read an Excerpt

BERMONDSEY

It aint like your regular sort of day.

Bernie pulls me a pint and puts it in front of me. He looks at me, puzzled, with his loose, doggy face but he can tell I don't want no chit-chat. That's why I'm here, five minutes after opening, for a little silent pow-wow with a pint glass. He can see the black tie, though it's four days since the funeral. I hand him a fiver and he takes it to the till and brings back my change. He puts the coins, extra gently, eyeing me, on the bar beside my pint.

'Won't be the same, will it?' he says, shaking his head and looking a little way along the bar, like at unoccupied space. 'Won't be the same.'

I say, 'You aint seen the last of him yet.'

He says, 'You what?'

I sip the froth off my beer. 'I said you aint seen the last of him yet.'

He frowns, scratching his cheek, looking at me. 'Course, Ray,' he says and moves off down the bar.

I never meant to make no joke of it.

I suck an inch off my pint and light up a snout. There's maybe three or four other early-birds apart from me, and the place don't look its best. Chilly, a whiff of disinfectant, too much empty space. There's a shaft of sunlight coming through the window, full of specks. Makes you think of a church.

I sit there, watching the old clock, up behind the bar. Thos. Slattery, Clockmaker, Southwark. The bottles racked up like organ pipes.

Lenny's next to arrive. He's not wearing a black tie, he's not wearing a tie at all. He takes a quick shufty at what I'm wearing and we both feel we gauged it wrong.

'Let me, Lenny,' I say. 'Pint?'

He says, 'This is a turn-up.'

Bernie comes over.He says, 'New timetable, is it?'

'Morning,' Lenny says.

'Pint for Lenny,' I say.

'Retired now, have we, Lenny?' Bernie says.

'Past the age for it, aint I, Bern? I aint like Raysy here, man of leisure. Fruit and veg trade needs me.'

'But not today, eh?' Bernie says.

Bernie draws the pint and moves off to the till.

'You haven't told him?' Lenny says, looking at Bernie.

'No,' I say, looking at my beer, then at Lenny.

Lenny lifts his eyebrows. His face looks raw and flushed. It always does, like it's going to come out in a bruise. He tugs at his collar where his tie isn't.

'It's a turn-up,' he says. 'And Amy aint coming? I mean, she aint changed her mind?'

'No,' I say. 'Down to us, I reckon. The inner circle.'

'Her own husband,' he says.

He takes hold of his pint but he's slow to start drinking, as if there's different rules today even for drinking a pint of beer.

'We going to Vic's?' he says.

'No, Vic's coming here,' I say.

He nods, lifts his glass, then checks it, sudden, half-way to his mouth. His eyebrows go even higher.

I say, 'Vic's coming here. With Jack. Drink up, Lenny.'

Vic arrives about five minutes later. He's wearing a black tie but you'd expect that, seeing as he's an undertaker, seeing as he's just come from his premises. But he's not wearing his full rig. He's wearing a fawn raincoat, with a flat cap poking out of one of the pockets, as if he's aimed to pitch it right: he's just one of us, it aint official business, it's different.

'Morning.' he says.

I've been wondering what he'll have with him. So's Lenny, I dare say. Like I've had this picture of Vic opening the pub door and marching in, all solemn, with a little oak casket with brass fittings. But all he's carrying, under one arm, is a plain brown cardboard box, about a foot high and six inches square. He looks like a man who's been down the shops and bought a set of bathroom tiles.

He parks himself on the stool next to Lenny, putting the box on the bar, unbuttoning his raincoat.

'Fresh out,' he says.

'Is that it then?' Lenny says, looking. 'Is that him?'

'Yes,' Vic says. 'What are we drinking?'

'What's inside?' Lenny says.

'What do you think?' Vic says.

He twists the box round so we can see there's a white card sellotaped to one side. There's a date and a number and a name: JACK ARTHUR DODDS.

Lenny says, 'I mean, he aint just in a box, is he?'

By way of answering Vic picks up the box and flips open the flaps at the top with his thumb. 'Mine's a whisky,' he says, 'I think it's a whisky day.'

He feels inside the box and slowly pulls out a plastic container. It looks like a large instant-coffee jar, it's got the same kind of screw-on cap. But it's not glass, it's a bronzy-coloured, faintly shiny plastic. There's another label on the cap.

'Here,' Vic says and hands the jar to Lenny.

Lenny takes it, uncertain, as if he's not ready to take it but he can't not take it, as if he ought to have washed his hands first. He don't seem prepared for the weight. He sits on his bar-stool, holding it, not knowing what to say, but I reckon he's thinking the same things I'm thinking. Whether it's all Jack in there or Jack mixed up with bits of others, the ones who were done before and the ones who were done after. So Lenny could be holding some of Jack and some of some other feller's wife, for example. And if it is Jack, whether it's really all of him or only what they could fit in the jar, him being a big bloke.

He says, 'Don't seem possible, does it?' Then he hands me the jar, all sort of getting-in-the-mood, like it's a party game. Guess the weight.

'Heavy.' I say.

'Packed solid,' Vic says.

I reckon I wouldn't fill it, being on the small side. I suppose it wouldn't do to unscrew the cap.

I pass it back to Lenny. Lenny passes it back to Vic.

Vic says, 'Where's Bern got to?'

Vic's a square-set, ready-and-steady sort of a bloke, the sort of bloke who rubs his hands together at the start of something. His hands are always clean. He looks at me holding the jar like he's just given me a present. It's a comfort to know your undertaker's your mate. It must have been a comfort to Jack. It's a comfort to know your own mate will lay you out and box you up and do the necessary. So Vic better last out.

It must have been a comfort to Jack that there was his shop, Dodds & Son, Family Butcher, and there was Vic's just across the street, with the wax flowers and the marble slabs and the angel with its head bowed in the window: Tucker & Sons, Funeral Services. A comfort and an incentive, and a sort of fittingness too, seeing as there was dead animals in the one and stiffs in the other.

Maybe that's why Jack never wanted to budge.



RAY

I'd said to Jack, 'It aint never gone nowhere,' and Jack'd said, 'What's that, Raysy? Can't hear you.' He was leaning over towards Vince.

It was coming up to last orders.

I said, 'They calls it the Coach and Horses but it aint never gone nowhere.'

He said, 'What?'

We were perched by the bar, usual spot. Me, Lenny, Jack and Vince. It was young Vince's birthday, so we were all well oiled, Vince's fortieth. And it was the Coach's hundredth, if you could go by the clock. I was staring at it—COACH AND HORSES in brass letters round the top. Slattery. 1884. First time I'd thought of it. And Vince was staring at Bernie Skinner's new barmaid, Brenda, or was it Glenda? Or rather at the skirt she was squeezed into, like she was sitting down when she was standing up.

I wasn't just staring at the clock, either.

Jack said, 'Vince, your eyes'll pop out.'

Vince said, 'So will her arse.'

Jack laughed. You could see how we were all wishing we were Vincey's age again.

I hadn't seen Jack so chummy with Vince for a long time. Maybe he was having to be, on account of it being Vincey's big day. That's if it was his big day, because Lenny says to me, same evening, when we meet up in the pisser, 'Have you ever wondered how he knows it's his birthday? Jack and Amy weren't ever a witness, were they? They never got no certificate. My Joan thinks Amy just picked March the third out the air. April the first might've been a better bet, mightn't it?'

Lenny's a stirrer.

We stood there piddling and swaying and I said, 'No, I aint ever wondered that. All these years.'

Lenny said, 'Still, I forget my own birthday these days. It's been a while since the rest of us saw forty, aint it, Ray?'

I said, 'Fair while.'

Lenny said, 'Mustn't begrudge the tosser his turn.' He zipped up and lurched back into the bar and I stood there staring at the porcelain.



I said, 'Daft name to call a pub.'

Jack said, 'What's that?'

I said, 'The Coach. The Coach. I'm trying to tell you.'

Vince said, looking at Brenda, 'It's Ray's joke.'

'When it aint ever moved.'

Jack said, 'Well, you should put that right, Raysy. You're the one for the horses. You ought to tell old Bernie there to crack his whip.'

Vince said, 'She can crack my whip any day.'

Jack said, 'I'll crack your head. If Mandy don't.'

And he only said it in the nick of time because half a minute later Mandy herself walks in, come to fetch Vincey home. She's been round at Jack's place, nattering with Amy and Joan. Vincey don't see her, looking at other things, but Jack and me do but we don't let on, and she comes up behind Vince and spreads her hands over his face and says, 'Hello, big eyes, guess who?'

She aint built on Brenda's lines any more but she's not doing so bad for nearly forty herself, and there's the clobber, red leather jacket over a black lace top, for a start. She says, 'Come to get you, birthday boy,' and Vincey pulls down one of her hands and pretends to bite it. He's wearing one of his fancy ties, blue and yellow zig-zags, knot pulled loose. He nibbles Mandy's hand and she takes her other hand from his face and pretends to claw his chest. So when they get up to go and we watch them move to the door, Lenny says, 'Young love, eh?', his tongue in the corner of his mouth.

But before they go Jack says, 'Don't I get a kiss, then?' and Mandy says, 'Course you do, Jack,' smiling, and we all watch while she puts her arms round Jack's neck, like she means it, and gives him two big wet ones, one on each cheek, and we all see Jack's hand come round, while she hangs on, to pat her arse. It's a big hand. We all see one of Mandy's heels lift out of her shoe. I reckon she took a drop of something with her round to Amy's. Then Jack says, shaking loose, 'Go on, get on out of it. And get this clown out of it too,' pointing at Vince.

Then Jack and Vince look at each other and Jack says, 'Happy birthday, son. Good to see you,' as if he can't see him any day he chooses. Vince says, 'Night Jack,' grabbing his jacket from the hook under the bar, and just for a moment it's like he's going to hold out his hand for Jack to shake. Forgive and forget. He puts his hand on Jack's shoulder instead, like he needs the help-up, but I reckon, by Jack's face, he gives a quick squeeze.

Jack says, 'You've only got an hour of it left.'

Mandy says, 'Better make the most of it.'

Lenny says, 'Promises.'

Vince says, 'Never know your luck.'

Mandy tugs at Vince's arm while he picks up his glass and drains off what's left, not hurrying. He says, 'Keep 'em hungry, that's what I say.' He runs his wrist across his mouth. 'Needs must.'

Lenny says, 'You're an old man now, Big Boy. Home before closing, and you have to be carted.'

I say, 'Coach is leaving.'

Lenny says, 'Don't mind Ray, Mandy. Aint his day. Backed the wrong gee-gee. Sleep tight, won't you, Mandy.'

That red jacket's a bad clash with Lenny's face.

Mandy says, 'Night boys.'

Jack's smiling. 'Night kids.'

And everyone can see, as they slip out, Vincey with his hand just nudging Mandy's back, that they're the only ones in this pub with the jam. Nice motor parked outside, perk of the trade. Nice little daughter waiting up for them, fourteen years old. But that's like eighteen these days.

Lenny says, 'Turtle doves, eh?' pawing an empty glass. 'Who's in the chair?' And Jack says, 'I am,' looking like it's his birthday too.

It was coming up to last orders, to when Bernie bangs on his bell, like it isn't a coach, it's a fire-engine. Even then it don't move. There was smoke and noise and yak and cackle and Brenda bending and pools of spillage along the bar top. Saturday night. And I said, 'It's a hundred this year, aint anyone noticed?'

Jack said, 'What's a hundred?'

I said, 'Pub is, Coach is. Look at the clock.'

Jack said, 'It's ten to eleven.'

'But it aint ever gone nowhere, has it?'

'The clock?'

'The Coach, the Coach.'

And Jack said, 'Where d'you think it should be going, Raysy? Where d'you think we've all got to get to that the bleeding coach should be taking us?'

Copyright 1997 by Graham Swift
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Reading Group Guide

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Graham Swift's Last Orders. We hope they will enrich your experience of this brilliant and challenging new novel, the winner of Britain's prestigious Booker Prize.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2002

    A book I hated to finish - with a wonderful cast of characters

    It was one of those books I couldn't put down but didn't want to finish because I was enjoying it so much. It's a keeper and I'll read it again. Has been made into an excellent film that is true to the book and also highly recommended.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 5, 2000

    Engrossing and real

    Mr. Swift has an uncanny ability to draw the reader in to the real, inner life of his characters. Through them, we struggle with life and death, hope and regret. I was drawn into this novel as I always am by Swift's work.

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