"Swift has involved us in real, lived lives...Quietly, but with conviction, he seeks to affirm the values of decency, loyalty, love."--New York Review of Books
"A beautiful book...a novel that speaks profoundly of human need and tenderness. Even the most cynical will be warmed by it."--San Francisco Chronicle
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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.
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 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?'
What People are Saying About This
"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
Reading Group Guide
BOOKER PRIZE WINNER
"A beautiful book...a novel that speaks profoundly of human need and tenderness. Even the most cynical will be warmed by it."--San Francisco Chronicle
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.
The central event of the novel is the laying to rest of the remains of Jack Dodds, family butcher, who has left instructions that he wants his ashes scattered off the end of a pier in Margate, a faded resort on England's southeast coast. Three friends and his adopted son gather in a pub to drive down to Margate to carry out Jack's wishes. As Vic, Lenny, Ray, and Vince make their desultory progress from south London to the sea, the reader gets to know them intimately, and becomes aware of the web of connections between them--animosities, loves, secrets, and lies. In short, the accumulation of detail amounts to a realistic portrait not only of Jack Dodds and his friends, but also of life itself, as experienced by a particular generation and class of Londoners.
1. The title of the novel is a play on the "last orders" taken by a bartender in the pub [p. 6], and, of course, the "last orders" given by Jack concerning the disposal of his ashes. Why does Swift choose to make this link between the end of a night in the pub and the end of a life?
2. Last Orders has an unusual narrative structure: in each section characters speak for themselves, recounting past and present actions. There is no omniscient narrator, no stand-in for the author, no one who knows more than any one character. What effect does this narrative structure have upon your experience as a reader? What happens to your expectation of the traditional "exposition"-being filled in, at the outset of a novel, on setting, character, and what has happened before? How do you, as the reader, gather and sort through information given by each of the speakers?
3. In addition to the characters who are engaged in the novel's main action, there are three other narrators: Jack's widow Amy, Vince's wife Mandy, and Jack himself. What does the addition of these three contribute to the building up of the story? Are they necessary, and if so, why?
4. Given that the narrative point of view is shifting and necessarily subjective, how does Graham Swift give Ray a different status from the other narrators? Do you find as a result that you feel closer to, or more sympathetic with, Ray's experience than any of the others?
5. What is the relationship between what the characters do for a living and the alternative careers they wished for, but did not take up? How is "what might have been" an issue in the lives of each of the characters in the novel, including the women?
6. The carrying on of the family business is important to Jack Dodds: he has followed in the path of his father, but his adopted son, Vince, refuses to join him in "Dodds & Son, Family Butchers." Why is it so vital to Jack that Vince join him, and why is it so vital to Vince that he resist? What other causes are there for the difficulties between Jack and Vince?
7. Jack, Lenny, Ray, and Vince each has a single daughter. Jack's daughter, June, has been institutionalized from a very early age and he has never visited her; Ray's daughter lives in Australia and he hasn't heard from her in years; Lenny's daughter, Sally, is now a prostitute married to a jailbird; Vince has pimped his daughter to a rich Arab businessman. Why have these men failed so miserably in their relationships with their daughters? Do you suppose that they might have managed relationships with sons better?
8. The friendship between Jack and Ray was forged in North Africa in World War II. Lenny, too, served in the war and still thinks of himself as "Gunner Tate." Vic served in the navy, and the trip to Margate includes a stop at the Naval Monument at Chatham. How has the memory of the war shaped how these men think of themselves? Is their shared experience of war partly the reason for their friendship? Does having lived through the war create a barrier between them and their children's generation?
9. If Vince and Lenny are the most unhappy characters in the novel, why do you think they've become this way? How is their unhappiness translated into anger and violence? What is the effect of the fight between them-comic? ludicrous? a relief? Does it change anything?
10. How has Vic's profession shaped his personality? How does Vic differ from the other characters?
11. We can think of the place names at the head of certain sections as a dotted line on a map of England: they mark the progress of the friends as they make their way to Margate. The fact that they stop at Canterbury Cathedral reminds us that in his Canterbury Tales Chaucer, too, chose to have his pilgrims tell stories and talk about themselves as they made their way along the road to Canterbury. In what ways is the journey in Last Orders like a pilgrimage? What sort of knowledge or illumination results from this trip?
12. In the opening scene of the novel, Ray compares the Coach pub to a church, with the bottles ranged like organ pipes above the bar. Later, the characters find themselves in Canterbury Cathedral. What, if any, are the connections in this novel between the pub and the cathedral? What moods andor revelations does each place nurture or inspire? How does the novel make us meditate upon the relationship between the mundane and the spiritual?
13. Why does Graham Swift locate Jack's butcher shop directly across the street from Vic's funeral home, so that the two shops mirror each other? How do images of meat, bodies, and ashes create a web of meaning in the novel?
14. Jack is present, corporeally speaking, in the jar of ashes as his friends take him down to the seaside. How does Jack's presence elicit comedy in the novel? Tenderness? How does the handling of the jar tell us about the power of friendship?
15. Why does Vince, against the wishes of the others, scatter some of the ashes over the hill at Wick's Farm? Why does this place have a particular meaning for him, so that this becomes a necessary and fitting action?
16. Consider Graham Swift's handling of time in this novel. In approximately what year is the novel's "present" action taking place? How much time has passed since the affair between Ray and Amy? What are some other instances in which specific remembered events work to build up the reader's sense of time passing in the lives of these characters? By the end of the novel, would you be able to situate roughly all of its events on a time line?
17. Swift's challenging narrative structure illuminates the problem of partial knowledge: as readers, we discover only gradually, and in bits and pieces, information we need in order to understand the characters and their histories. We have no more insight than the characters themselves, and come to the same dawning realizations that they do, at the same time. At times this effect is the result of crucial information being held back. Which characters conceal important information from others, and why? How is this issue of partial knowledge--and the keeping of secrets and the telling of lies--important to the overall plan and meaning of the novel?
18. How successful are the marriages and love relationships in this novel? What are the limits to understanding between men and women? Is love a redemptive force here, or merely a painful misunderstanding, a botched effort? Do we wish to believe that Amy and Ray will take up their love affair again, now that Jack is gone and Amy has decided to stop visiting June?
19. Ray's friends depend upon his luck-or skill-in betting on horses when they need ready cash, usually because of major crises in their lives. How large a role does random fortune play at these moments? What does it mean to be "lucky" in this novel?
20. In a novel in which each character speaks without the intervention of a narrator, the issue of individualized voices becomes crucial. How do you come to distinguish the characters' voices? How successful is Swift in differentiating between voices? How important is the role of British slang in creating the illusion of reality in this novel?
21. Consider the first epigraph (from the seventeenth-century writer Sir Thomas Browne) that Swift has chosen for his novel: "But man is a Noble Animal, splendid in ashes, and pompous in the grave..." Do you read this epigraph ironically or seriously? What does your choice indicate about your response to the overall effect of the range of detail and meaning in this novel, from the tawdry to the profound?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.