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.