Last orders

by Graham Swift

Hardcover, 1996

Status

Available

Genres

Publication

London : Picador, 1996.

Description

In England three working-class buddies, united by pub-drinking and World War II experiences, drive the ashes of the fourth to the sea. In the process emerge the lives of four families and the reason no wife came. By the author of Ever after.

Media reviews

User reviews

LibraryThing member AndrewBlackman
In a way, the plot of Last Orders is very simple: a group of friends drive to the coast to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack. Yes, that's it. Along the way they have arguments and fights and endless pints of beer, but none of that is really the point. The real action of this book takes place in the past, appropriately enough for a novel about scattering ashes. These are old men remembering not only Jack but also their own former selves.

There are lots of lies and secrets and betrayals, but most of all there's a sense of missed chances. There's a phrase that really stuck in my mind, "If we could see and choose". Meaning that all the characters had ideas of themselves as young men, ideas of who they wanted to be. Jack wanted to be a doctor, Ray a jockey, Lenny a boxer. But then things got in the way: the war, family, health, and a hundred other reasons why things didn't work out the way they should have done. If we could see the way everything would pan out and choose based on the outcomes, things would be very different. But we can't. We choose based on what seems best at the time, or easiest, or what other people want us to do. And sometimes we don't really get to choose at all. And so our lives are not what we would have chosen, but what we end up with.

The novel, which won the 1996 Booker Prize, is written from multiple perspectives. The voice of each character is believable, with working class language and speech patterns (the opening line, for example, goes "It aint your regular sort of day"). This book is a good reminder that language doesn't have to be correct to be beautiful. I think it's quite hard to do it well, and if you get it wrong then too much dialect of any kind can be quite annoying. The only other book I can think of where I liked the dialect and found it not only believable but beautiful was The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Graham Swift, like Walker, manages it perfectly: even though he went to the same posh public school as I did, and Cambridge after that, there's never a moment when his Bermondsey slang rings false.

It's a maudlin kind of book, again appropriately - not just because of the death at the centre but because of the pubs that feature so heavily throughout. It feels like the sort of story you'd be told by an old man sitting at the bar nursing his half-finished pint on a slow Tuesday afternoon in one of those old-fashioned pubs where there's no music or TVs to drown out the melancholy thoughts that quiet drinking can bring on. You can feel the longing in the characters, sad and resigned to what their lives have become but still remembering what they would have done, if only they could see and choose.
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LibraryThing member John
Winner of the Booker Prize in 1996, and the source of some subsequent controversy when there were charges of, if not plagiarism, then copying of an idea given similarities with Faulkner's As I Lay Dying (which I think I read many years ago, but do not remember). Further controversy in the Canadian media when one of the Booker judges said that if the story had come to light before the voting, Margaret Atwood could have won for Alias Grace. All of which strikes me as a literary tempest in a teapot. Even if the basic structure of the story is similar to Faulkner (exploring the lives of a group of people carrying the ashes of a friend to be scattered as per his last wishes; in Last Orders, in the sea) one should be able to judge the quality of the writing on its own merits.

And on that basis, I think Last Orders is a very good book. It traces, through flashbacks, the lives and relationships of principally four men: Ray, Vic, Vince, and Lenny; friends of the deceased, Jack Dodds, master butcher; also, Jack's wife Amy and a couple of other female characters.

A wonderful exploration of life, loves, hopes, fears, wanting, frustrations, hatred misplaced and misguided that redounds on the hater more than the hated, and missed opportunities in life for understanding and closeness. Also, the fate-fuelled instances that take life down one channel rather than another, and not always what seems the most likely, or the one consciously expected or hoped for; the impact of little things, little slights, thoughtlessness, and selfishness that can shape and define lives and relationships in unforseen and unknown ways. Also an exploration of the fascinating differences between the inner view one has of oneself, and the myriad outer views of others; the latter infinite in their variety given that every individual interprets through his/her own prism of life experiences, prejudices, wants, etc, etc.

The story of the journey to the seaside is an allegory of this complexity of life and roads taken: it results in detours, a piss-up, a fight, and getting lost. All unplanned, just like the detours and turns in life.

As Swift says:

But the dead are the dead, I've watched them, they're equal. Either you think of them all or you forget them. It doesn't do in remembering one not to remember the others. And it doesn't do when you remember the others not to spare a thought for the ones you never knew. It's what makes all men equal for ever and always. There's only one sea.

You see all the dead, all the bent and broken or plain stretched-out dead, and you think, These people are strangers now, total strangers. But it's the living who are strangers, it's the living whose shapes you can't ever guess.

Is there a moral/basic message to the story? If so, I think it is the need to try to understand the effect of small gestures or decisions on the sensibilities of others, and to try to see events and relationships from other perspectives. A tall order.
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LibraryThing member lauralkeet
In this Booker prize-winning novel, four men spend a day travelling from London to the coast to scatter the ashes of Jack Dodds, as he requested just before his death. Three of the men -- Ray, Lenny, and Vic -- have been friends with Jack for most of their adult life, living in the same working-class community, and earning their living in local businesses. The fourth, Vince, is Jack's son. Thoughts, feelings, and history are revealed through short chapters, each told from one character's point of view. Each man has experienced love, loss, friendship, disappointment, and varying degrees of prosperity. Their lives are intertwined, sometimes in ways that the characters are unaware of individually. For the most part, these men swagger and boast while inside, they are full of pain. There are a few women in this book, but they are minor characters. Jack's wife, Amy, is portrayed in the most detail. I felt sorry for her; she was trapped in a less-than-satisfying marriage, with family obligations that Jack refused to share.

Swift has a way of evoking a time and place, and the characters seemed like real people. Their stories were moving in parts. I'm a bit surprised this won the Booker Prize, as it doesn't seem to compare to other winners I've read, but it's a passable if somewhat melancholy read.
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LibraryThing member piefuchs
Of all the fiction books I have read (including others by Swift) that attempt to pull off the changing view point (I sure English majors have a better word...) this is the master of the genre. All of the characters were interesting, the story was fantastic and full of surprises. The movie is worth watching (this surprised me) but only after you have read the book first.… (more)
LibraryThing member MelmoththeLost
"On the surface a tale of a simple if increasingly bizarre day's outing, Last Orders is Graham Swift's most poignant exploration of the complexity and courage of ordinary lives."

So says the blurb on the back of the book. The outing mentioned is a trip by four men to scatter into the sea at Margate the ashes of Jack Dodds, friend to three of the men and adoptive father of the fourth. The account of the trip is told by the four men in turns interspersed with the viewpoint of Amy, Jack's widow, who chooses to spend the afternoon as she would ordinarily do - visiting her and Jack's profoundly mentally disabled 50-year old daughter in a residential home and, from time to time, interspersed also with that of Mandy, Jack and Amy's daughter-in-law.

As the trip and the memories unfold, we are introduced to secrets which might not be secrets after all, to the lifelong consequences of thoughtless, and occasionally desperate, actions, to regrets and wasted opportunities.

What let this novel down, for me at least, was the indistinct characterisation of several of the male characters - specifically Ray and Lenny. Or rather there were times when I struggled to hear their voices and experiences as different from each other and it was particularly difficult to remember which of them was married to whom and which wayward daughter belonged to which of them.

I had been meaning to get hold of and read Swift's earlier novel, Waterland, which I saw many years ago in Norwich in a stage adaptation so was very pleased indeed to pick this other novel of his up recently.
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LibraryThing member jayne_charles
This book follows three old codgers and a slightly younger old codger on a pilgrimage to Margate to scatter their late friend's ashes in the sea according to his wishes. I could almost hear Chas and Dave playing along in the background as I read it. It managed to fuse a colloquial narrative with an unashamedly literary style and the overall result was pretty good. Though the viewpoint shifted with each chapter, and the story jumped around in space and time, it was usually easy to work out what was happening. That became more difficult towards the end, however, where I felt as though I was lodged in that part of the character's brain that deals with abstract concepts, and would rather have been in the part that deals with specifics. A good read though, complex and surprisingly touching, and with characters who already speak like Michael Caine, Bob Hoskins et al, I'm sure the film cast itself.… (more)
LibraryThing member samfsmith
An outstanding novel. Obviously a homage to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. The narration is the same - first person serial, with seven of the characters sharing the duties of narration, all in first person. The chapter titles are the names of the characters who narrate, except for the chapters which are named for locations, which serve to advance the action.

The story is similar to Faulkner also. A man has died, and wishes his friends and family to make a trip to throw his ashes off a pier. Sound similar?

And it shares some of the black humor of Faulkner as well, although not as dramatic. With Faulkner, I shook my head in disbelief at the actions of the characters, while actually believing what had occurred. Swift does not evoke that same reaction, but portions of the character’s “quest” are wryly humorous.

So an outstanding effort. I admire anyone who can plan and execute a novel of this much precision.
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LibraryThing member BrianDewey
Swift, Graham. Last Orders. Vintage, New York, 1996. Winner of the Booker prize. This is an excellent book, very reminiscent of As I Lay Dying.
LibraryThing member Tinwara
This book and I did not go well together. Can't say why exactely. It's not that it's a bad novel. I suppose Swift is a good writer. It was nice to have the different characters each tell little parts of a story, that passed from the present to the recent past, to long ago. In the end you've got this picture of a situation. Which is not a spectacular situation, or adventurous. It's about ordinary men and women living their lives.
Still, I had a hard time finishing this book. Just didn't feel any real interest or emotion for the characters or the storyline. It all seemed distant. Rationally I say that it was well done, but irrationally I thought, to be honest, that it was very boring...
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LibraryThing member starme217
Last Orders was definitely one of those serendipity books - I happened to be browsing the 'all books for $3' rack at a local used book store, and found this, in hardcover no less. I was rather fond of Waterland, the way the narrative was done, and well, the emotional landscapes found there, so I
thought I would give this one a shot.

Very well worth the gamble. I have next to nothing in common with the main
characters (and narrators). I am not male, British, nor did I come of age during WWII, but there is something really engaging in the way the story is
told. Ray (or Lucky) is the main narrator, and the way he winds his tale is like a sand mandala slowly, slowly coming together. His asides and self-commentaries, and foreshadowings and dancing back and forth with what he
really thinks cast a good background to the burial trip of his friend, Jack.

The other main players, Vince (the not-really-adopted son of Jack), Lenny (the loudmouthed, sort-of-forgotten one), and Vic (the undertaker-friend) lend their own voices, and even Amy, Jack's widow adds to the chorus. The tales wind back and forth from the present to the past and back again, each
person giving a little bit of time, telling a little bit of why things
happened and filling in the details. The tales interweave, the cloth of the story slowly slowly fills out into a full tapestry.

The end is so poignant without being silly or mushy. It's real, it's a turning point, and yet, it's just sort of a continuation of everything that's been going on. A merging of the stories - and finally Ray (and we) see what's
really going on, even though he thought he had the inside story.

I'm just glad I picked this one up.
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LibraryThing member AJBraithwaite
Realistic portrayal of the relationships and long history of a group of Bermondsey men who undertake a road trip to scatter the ashes of Jack Dodds. Simple but somehow lovely.
LibraryThing member bcquinnsmom
Well, I must say that at first I thought this was going to be an "iffy" book, but I stayed with it and now I'm really happy I did. What a fine novel! What great writing! Now I must find more by this author.

Let me also say that this book is not for everyone. It is not something you can pick up and expect to finish as quickly as, say, a James Patterson novel. It takes time to read and digest, so if you're looking for something quick and easy, forget it. This book has substance, and you will really want to give it some thought while you read it.

Here's a brief synopsis with no spoilers:
As the book opens, we learn that a group of friends have all gathered together to fulfill the "last orders" of their friend Jack Dodds. Jack has died, and his final wish was to have his ashes scattered over the sea in a tourist town in England called Margate. Three in the group-- Vic, Lenny & Ray, were friends of Jack's; Vince was Jack's son. With Vince in the driver's seat, the four slowly wind their way down to Margate. Each person has a voice in this novel, as do others not on the trip, and through their stories, each person's relationship with Jack is revealed, as well as the relationships between each other. It's not a linear story, so don't expect one; in many ways, details are revealed little by little so that the fullness of the story really comes about at the end, after each person has looked back over his own life in the last half a century or so. Each of these people have things in their lives that they've given up or kept, and now look back on the choices they've made. Not surprisingly, Jack's death has made them all very aware of their own lives past, present and future.

A fine, fine novel, one that I'm happy to put on my 2007 favorites list. I recommend it highly, but to patient readers who want something they can take away from their reading experience. This is literature, not just a book.
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LibraryThing member sanddancer
A group of old friends make a pilgrimage from London to the Kent coast to scatter the ashes of their friend Jack. Beneath the surface of their relationships are old grudges and everyone has suffered disappointments and wrong decisions.

The book is narrated in the first person but shifts from character to character, but helpfully most chapters have the characters name at the top so you know who it is!

It is a very English novel - it is a road trip but on a very small scale and it doesn't offer any neat resolutions. The characters are ordinary people but they are believeable and sympathetic. I loved this book.
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LibraryThing member NeilDalley
It has taken me weeks to finish this. I really don't feel that I was very engaged by it.
LibraryThing member maggieoj
Was disappointed with the style and language used.
LibraryThing member ariffo
I really liked it, though all the British-isms (and English not being my native language) made it a bit of a hard read.

Perhaps what I enjoyed the most was seeing how the characters' lives were intertwined in so many different ways that not even they were aware of... seemed to me like a very good (perhaps even outstanding) depiction of life and of what REAL lifelong, close-knit relationships are like, without the mushiness/corniness that so often mucks-up an otherwise great read.

All in all, I definitely recommend it and will add "Waterland" to my already HUGE to-be-read pile.
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LibraryThing member camelliacorner
Absolutely riveting in a nosy sort of way. I loved the characters, couldn't wait to see how their lives unfolded and who would be entwined with who next. All lives are like this, if you live long enough. A country town where generations have lived has lots of little secrets and gossip.
LibraryThing member nocto
This is one of those odd books that I quite enjoyed despite not really getting on with it. Or perhaps I didn't enjoy it despite finding it quite likeable. Hard to put my finger on my feelings with any degree of accuracy.
Jack's last orders were last his drinking partners from the pub in Bermondsey should scatter his ashes from the pier at Margate. This book is split into short segments narrated by his friends and son, and also his widow who stays at home, as the day goes on.
In some places I found the book really captivating as the little details of life build up to show a bigger picture of what has happened between several families over a lifetime, and in other places the same things just seemed mundane.
I'll read more of Swift, but, curiously, this isn't one I'd recommend.
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LibraryThing member claudiachernov
A sad book. Well written. Not enthralling.
LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
At first glance this seems such a simple tale, a man's dying wish is to have his ashes thrown into the sea of Margate pier and four drinking mates undertake this task making a few stops along the way but there is much more to it than that. Firstly all the characters are working class, we have Vic an undertaker, Ray an insurance broker and horse racing gambler, Lenny a fruit and veg man, Vince a second hand car salesman and of course the deceased Jack Dodds, a Master Butcher. Each man along with the widow Amy narrates part of the story each unraveling a little of theirs' and Jack's past. We get life and death,childhood and parenthood, loyalty and deception,work,regret and lost opportunities,in fact all the ingredients that makes up everyday life.

Initially I found the constant skipping from one narrator to another and from the past to the present a little baffling but soon got the hang of it and even began to enjoy these constant switches of emphasis. Despite the gloomy subject matter there was also a certain amount of humour which lightened the mood at times. I also enjoyed the author's writing style feeling that he had a good grasp and insight into his characters, the most poignant for me was strangely the one who didn't go, the widow. Instead she has her own journey to make, to visit and tell her mentally retarded daughter June that Jack has died, a daughter whom Jack has shunned practically all her life but whom it could be argued that in his choice of final resting place he finally acknowledges in death what he could not face in life.

However, for me, the final third of the book rather lets it down overall. This switches predominantly between the hospital ward and the home where June has lived most of her life, coupled with the meandering nature of the journey to Margate meant I felt that the tale got somewhat bogged down at times. That said I still enjoyed the book as a whole and will certainly look out for some of Swift's other works but a worthy winner of the Booker Prize? I'm not so sure.
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LibraryThing member jack2410
Four men gather in a London pub. They have taken it upon themselves to carry out the last orders of Jack Dodds, master butcher, and deliver his ashes to the sea.
LibraryThing member AlastairFulton
Evocative, poignant, well judged.
LibraryThing member midwestms
Excellent novel highlighting the relationship among men
LibraryThing member jwhenderson
This is Swift's Booker Prize-winning novel from 1996. Some have noted similarities between it and Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, but that does not detract from its quality which has been evident in Swift's writing since his earlier success with Waterland (a novel that was short-listed for the Booker). While I found it a bit slow at first, it eventually evolved into a 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. None could be 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.

The narrative start is developed with an economy that presents (through the characters' own voices, one after another) the story's humanity and depth with a minimum of melodrama. The group is uncomfortable at first as evidenced by weak and self- conscious jocular remarks when they 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 gradually learns 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. As you might expect there are stories shared with topics like tales of innocent youth, suffering wives, early loves, lost daughters, secret affairs, and old antagonisms. There is even a fistfight over the dead on an English hilltop, and a strewing of Jack's ashes into roiling sea waves that will draw up feelings perhaps unexpectedly strong. Graham Swift is able to avoid artificiality by listening closely to these lives and presenting realistic voices that share stories of humanity with the proverbial ring of truth.
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LibraryThing member allysonrabbott
I really enjoy life like situations where humour is used to highlight everyday issues. This book, although about losing a loved friend, brings the gang together for the final farewell.

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