Thursday, 18 February 2010

Last Orders by Graham Swift

A moving study of ordinary life, Last Orders follows four men undertaking the final wishes of Jack Dodds, erstwhile soldier, butcher and friend, as they take his ashes from Bermondsey to be scattered into the sea at Margate.

Principally narrated by gambling man Ray, the action of the book takes place in one day, as the men drive through Kent to Jack’s last resting place. Ray gets one in early at the local pub:

Bernie pulls me a pint and puts it in front of me. He looks at me, puzzled, with his loose, doggy face but can tell I don’t want no chit-chat. That’s why I’m here, five minutes after opening, for a silent pow-wow with a pint glass... I suck an inch off my pint and light up a snout. There’s maybe three or four other early-birds apart from me, and the place don’t look its best. Chilly, a whiff of disinfectant, too much empty space. There’s a shaft of sunlight coming through the windows, full of specks. Makes you think of a church. I sit there, watching the old clock, up behind the bar. Thos. Slattery, Clockmaker, Southwark. The bottles racked up like organ pipes.

They stop for lunch at Rochester and the temptation to stay the afternoon in the boozer is all too strong:

Then we eat up and drink up and Lenny and I light up ciggies and Lenny gets in a round and it seems like we’ve always know the Bull in Rochester and it’s always known us, and we’re all thinking the same thing, that it’s a pity we can’t just carry on sitting here getting slowly pickled and at peace with the world, it’s a pity we’re obliged to take Jack on to Margate. Because Jack wouldn’t have minded, it’s even what he would’ve wanted for us, to get sweetly slewed on his account.

They resist and the odyssey to Margate continues. But not before a Ray imparts a little home truth to himself while using the lavatory.

There’s always a frosted quarter-light, chinked open, with a view of the back end of somewhere, innyards, alleyways, with some little peephole out on life... It’s when you stand up to piss you can tell how pissed you are.

He’s not wrong there. He might also have pointed out the sad fact that nobody ever buys beer, they merely rent it...

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