I really enjoyed Last Orders by Graham Swift. It’s the story of a group of working men from London carrying out the last wishes of a London butcher Jack Dodds, who wants his ashes scattered from Margate pier. We are told the story from the points of view of four of his friends who carry out this last wish, and later from the viewpoint of his wife, Amy.
Last Orders is a clever title: “last orders” was the time last drinks could be bought in the days before unrestricted drinking was allowed in England, and these friendships are based around The Coach and Horses, an East London pub. The friends who carry out Jack’s last orders also share jobs on an English high street – the dead man was a butcher, and one friend an undertaker – a nice ironic juxtaposition that is played out thematically in the novel. Other links include shared experiences of the desert war (39-45), and certain infidelities and romantic entanglements that add complexity and an edge of feeling to the relationships.
The story takes place in one day but the memories of the characters stretch across the second half of the twentieth century; they show the frustrations and failings of ordinary people, but also their loyalty and friendship. It’s a book of great sadness, with comic interludes, and characters that are engaging and sympathetic, yet very real and human – full of frailty and weakness.
Swift captures the narrative voices of these characters in a series of short chapters. Don’t look for a handy resolution, but enjoy the vibrant dialogue and the sense of lived experience.