Graham Swift, 1996
Winner, 1996 Booker Prize and James Tait Black Memorial Prize
Last Orders is the story of four men once close to London butcher Jack Dodds, who meet to carry out his last wish: to have his ashes scattered into the sea. The men, whose lives revolve around work, family, the racetrack and their favourite pub, must make their way down to a seaside town to complete the task.
Through conversation and memory they trace the paths they have followed by choice and by accident; through the Second World War and its aftermath, through the dramas of family life, and their relationships with each other.
In their brilliantly realized, richly nuanced voices, Swift has created a narrative language that perfectly expresses not only the comforts of old habits and friendships, but also the complexity and courage of ordinary lives. (From the publisher.)
• Birth—May 4, 1949
• Where—London, England, UK
• Education—Dulwich College; Cambridge; University of York
• Awards—Booker Prize; James Tait Black Memorial Prize
• Currently—lives in London, England
Graham Colin Swift is a well-known British author and fellow of the Royal Society of Literature (FRSL). He was born in London, England and educated at Dulwich College, London, Queens' College, Cambridge, and later the University of York. He was a friend of poet Ted Hughes.
Some of his works have been made into films, including Last Orders, which starred Michael Caine and Bob Hoskins and Waterland which starred Jeremy Irons.
Last Orders was a joint winner of the 1996 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction and a mildly controversial winner of the Booker Prize in 1996, owing to the superficial similarities in plot to William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying.
Waterland was set in The Fens; it is a novel of landscape, history and family, and is often cited as one of the outstanding post-war British novels and has been a set text on the English Literature syllabus in British schools.
1980 - The Sweet-Shop Owner
1982 - Shuttlecock (Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize)
1983 - Waterland
1988 - Out of This World
1992 - Ever After
1996 - Last Orders (Booker Prize)
2003 - The Light of Day
2007 - Tomorrow
2009 - Making an Elephant: Writing from Within
2012 - Wish you Were Here
2016 - Mothering Sunday
(Author bio from Wikipedia.)
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.
In Swift's latest work, following Ever After, 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
Britisher Swift's sixth novel (Ever After, 1992) 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 sea waves 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.
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?
(Questions issued by publisher.)
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