So begins a journey of a little over 70 miles as his three long-term drinking buddies (Ray ‘Lucky’ Johnson, Lenny ‘Gunner’ Tate and Vic Tucker) head for the coast, driven by Jack’s adopted son, Vince (a wonderfully stereotypical used car salesman), with urn tucked under various arms. Amy Dodds, wife for more than 50 years, refuses to travel.
Little is straightforward in Last Orders. Like the journey itself, the book is a convoluted exploration of the relationships between the men past and present. The round trip from Bermondsey in South East London to Margate could be readily achieved in three to four hours – yet numerous unplanned detours result in delay after delay to the completion of the task in hand.
Constant use of flashbacks and reminiscences gradually reveal a deeper understanding of the complexities and commonplace events that have shaped the present. Each (short) chapter is assigned to one character and it is through this multiplicity of voices we learn of the last 50 years and the friendships (occasionally strained) and alliances formed. Regret, anger, frustration, sadness inevitably fuel the recalled memories – the war years, wanted and unwanted pregnancies, marriage break-ups, struggling businesses.
It is a simple story simply told as shared memories (and a few not-so-shared) and old grudges re-surface as the four men drive through the Kent countryside. Graham Swift readily avoids the pitfalls of melodrama and, instead, we are presented with the narrative in the vernacular of an older-generation Bermondsey – short confessions or streams of consciousness that propel the storyline backwards and forwards (it’s a convoluted journey, remember).
Last Orders is a delightful read – deceptively simple, readily accessible with its underlying grim humour, wholly engaging. It won the 1996 Booker Prize, defeating, in the process, Margaret Atwood (Alias Grace), Beryl Bainbridge (Every Man For Himself), Seamus Deane (Reading in the Dark), Shena MacKay (The Orchard of Fire) and Rohinton Mistry (A Fine Balance) – something of a vintage shortlist.
In 2001, Fred Schepisi adapted and directed the novel for the silver screen. A dream cast provides the perfect indication of the feel and character of the story – including Michael Caine (Jack), Bob Hoskins (Ray) and Ray Winston (Vince).