Sunday, May 09, 2010

Graham Swift – ‘Last Orders’

       ‘So then I thought, But I can change in another way. She won’t see me turning up at the hospital but I can have something to tell her. Something to compensate.’
       I think, you might have done both.
       He says, ‘Amy don’t give up.’
       I think, Who’s talking? (p. 84)
For fifty years, Amy Dodds has been taking the number 44 bus to visit her daughter June at a psychiatric hospital. Twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays. June can’t speak, and gives no indication that she is aware of Amy’s presence. June’s father Jack refuses to go, has never been, will barely acknowledge June’s existence. He has been a butcher all his working life, and the ‘something to compensate’ he mentions above, in conversation with Vic the undertaker, is the decision to sell up so they can retire to Margate. He wants to start a new life, aged 68, meet new people. He has a fixation on the ‘new people’ part, which reminded me of Alan Bennett’s recollections of his parents’ attempts to get on in society. But the decision, much as he wants to pretend otherwise, is not a result of Jack’s resolve, or an argument won. He is being forced out of business by a nearby supermarket, and is already seriously in debt because of a loan he took out in his early 60s – clearly that would have been the better time to sell up and retire. Especially as he dies of cancer before the move to Margate can happen.

Sound fun? No, it’s not. Last Orders is about failure, in personal and economic terms. It is structured around the drive four of Jack’s friends make from Bermondsey to Margate to scatter his ashes. Chapters are named after places on this journey, apart from the ones which look back, which are named after the character doing the reminiscing. Every significant character gets a say. As the back stories are filled in, a pecking order emerges. At the bottom is Lenny, who had dreams of becoming a professional boxer, but settled for selling fruit and veg from a market stall. Jack would probably be next, but he would rather have been a doctor than a butcher – in hospital, he confuses his surgeon by drawing a parallel between the two professions. Then there is Ray, who wanted to be a jockey but instead worked in an insurance office, eventually arriving at a compromise by going part time and spending his free days betting at racing tracks up and down the country. Ray is the only one of the four men in the car (five, counting Jack) not to have been self employed. Vic Tucker, the undertaker (he tucks them in) is top for his generation, with a successful business and two sons who work for him. Driving the car is Vince, Jack’s adopted son, who owns a car showroom and is richer than all of them. He provides and drives the car, a Mercedes: ‘It’s a 380 S-Class, that’s what it is. V8, automatic.’ (p. 23). He wears a camel hair coat and for some reason kept reminding me of Vinnie Jones.

The personal pecking order closely follows the economic one. Lenny and Joan couldn’t afford to take their daughter Sally to the seaside as a young girl, so let her accompany Jack and Amy Dodds, with Vince, on their weekend outings in the meat van to (guess where?) Margate. In a round about way this leads, years later, to Sally becoming pregnant by Vince, and Vince running off to join the army to escape the consequences. Sally has an abortion and ends up marrying ‘Tommy Tyson, care of Pentonville Prison’ (p. 132), thereafter descending into prostitution. Vince later pimps his own daughter Kath to a customer he is worried might not otherwise buy the Mercedes. I could go on, but that is enough to demonstrate the point about the web of mistreatment and resentment that constitute the bulk of the novel. It is carefully worked out, and plausible enough, but I couldn’t see a point to all the misery. There is no moral order, or how could Vince come out top? Why all this fuss over the death of Jack, a man who is overwhelmingly weak and blinkered? Ray at least has some self-awareness, and is likeable enough for his misfortunes to amount to something like tragedy. His betting pays for daughter Susie’s emigration to Australia, but when his wife leaves him he stops writing to Susie because he feels it would be an imposition to tell her. He reflects:
If I’d been another man I wouldn’t have just sat there with it getting dark, but not bothering to put the lights on, as if, if I sat very still, I might fade away altogether. (p. 100)

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