Ann Skea is author of Ted Hughes: The Poetic Quest (UNE Press, Australia)
Picador, Macmillan (1996)
ISBN: 0 330 34560 5
This is a beautiful book. Beautifully written, beautifully controlled. It is about the ordinary lives of ordinary people, and the mixture of accident and circumstances which shapes such lives. Commonplace events, personal tragedies, laughter, love and death are all part of their shared memories. But faced with the blunt reality of death, these memories seem like small eddies in the flow of events which have brought them to this present moment. Could they have changed anything? Can they change anything now?
Last Orders shows Graham Swift writing at his best, and he well deserves the nomination for the Booker Prize. The atmosphere he builds up as the book progresses is one of thoughtful reverie, which I found so absorbing that I was irritated by anything which distracted me from the book and broke the spell. It is a simple story, simply told, but one which has great depths.
The story begins in an East London pub. And Jack Dodds, dead and alive, is present from the start right up to the final moment when his ashes are carried away by the wind at the end of Margate Pier. It is Jack's boxed ashes which bring his family and friends together in their favourite Bermondsy pub; and it is this heavy box and its contents which prompt their reminiscences on the car ride to the South Coast town of Margate. Shared memories overlap as the trip to Margate progresses, and in the forced intimacy of the car, old grudges re-surface and cause unexpected diversions. But finally, Jack's 'last orders' for the disposal of his ashes are carried out - more or less as he directed.
For various reasons, Ray was probably the closest of Jack's friends. And it is Ray's thoughts that we hear most frequently as we follow the inner and outer journeys of the various characters. Like the others, Ray speaks a vernacular which Swift captures subtly and skilfully, without tricks or exaggeration. For a page or two, the language struck me as strange, but it was soon so familiar that it seemed completely normal. Since I grew up close to this part of London, it was speech which was well known to me, and I felt that I knew these people and shared something of their background and histories. But Swift never makes his English setting or its history intrusive, so his people and their thoughts, actions and memories are simply human and, as such, are understandable to all.
In fact, the very ordinariness of the characters made it difficult, at first, for me to distinguish one voice from another, and I found myself checking the chapter headings to see who was speaking. Recognition grew from small accretions of signs as the story progressed, and very soon I was familiar with the particular character traits of particular speakers: Lenny's antagonism towards Vince, for example; Vince's obsession with cars; and Vic's dry, matter-of-fact view of life and death, and his odd sense of humour. Like other aspects of this book, the slow, simple approach added to the 'realness' of the story, rather as in one of Mike Leigh's films.
It would have been very easy for Swift to create vivid, distinctive characters, as he has done before, but his gentle, understated approach is an essential part of the gradual intensifying of atmosphere which he achieves so well. It invites us to contemplate the course of our own lives. And it is also completely consistent with the old butchers' wisdom that Jack Dodds, towards the end of the book, recalls for us, just as he heard it from his father. It is advice which I think Swift intends us all to apply to our lives: