February 19, 2020
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Pilgrim's Progress

The 1996 Booker-winning novel has echoes of Eliot and Chaucer

Pilgrim's Progress
Last Orders
By Graham Swift
Picador Pages: 295;
THIS novel has just won the 1996 Booker Prize. When I drafted this review it hadn't then won though Outlook's editor will vouch that I said it would. It is entirely fitting that a novel threaded with references to betting and gambling on horses (and other things in life) should win the Booker, which has brought contemporary fiction out of the invisible world of literary endeavour and intrigue to become a public race with odds on which novel will win. After all, the prize and the gambling do make the books better known even if they don't make for better books.

I'd been working up to writing this review when I read it back in the English summer. Not only because Swift is arguably the most significant English novelist now writing but because it has the last third of a pint of English beer and its froth on the front cover. English ale features heavily in Swift's work, most notably in his previously Booker short-listed novel, Waterland. I hadn't drunk English bitter for a year, so I was more than ready to indulge myself and Last Orders proved the ideal way to do so. The novel read during an English July in a small town south of London refreshed not only my spirit, my future and my memories, but my tastebuds too.

It is a title that might have been borrowed from T.S. Eliot. 'Time gentlemen, please' (or 'last orders') is one of the best known borrowings from the uniquely self-contained world of the English inn, the public house, the pub, the boozer in the canon of English literature. If he'd read this novel, Tom Eliot would have changed that line in The Wasteland to 'Last orders gentlemen, please' in recognition not only of UK licensing laws but because the word 'orders' is resonant with associations of religious orders and spirituality. In the same way, Swift's novel shuttles across the loom from its South London setting to the far reaches of every man and woman's end. As Vic, the undertaker, meditates: "It's what makes all men equal forever and always. There's only one sea."

Last Orders is structured around a single day's journey to reach the one sea—here the ostensibly, unmystical sea off the coast at Margate, a town on the Kentish coast with every tawdriness ('BurgersHotdog-sIcesShakesTeasPopcornCandyflossRock') that an English downmarket resort can offer. The journey is a late 20th century pilgrimage of sorts which some reviewers have already compared to the journey made by Chaucer's pilgrims largely, one supposes, because that journey began in Bermondsey at The Tabard Inn whereas Swift's set off from the Coach and Horses, a name that provides his cast with a good running gag about a pub going nowhere fast. There are certainly echoes of The Canterbury Tales. Swift's much smaller group of four pilgrims do indeed make an unplanned stop at Canterbury where they enter the cathedral with the ashes of their dead friend, Jack, which they will later toss into the wind and sea at Margate. And like the original pilgrims these men reminisce—we listen in on their silent monologues—as they drive to their destination unravelling their memories for us.

But Swift's concern is, unlike Chaucer's where each story is more or less self-contained, to reveal the web of human relations by letting us in on the secret of private lives and how each one is connected and interrelated—which none of the participants can ever know but the reader alone, godlike, discerns. Another departure from this normal Chaucerian model is that though it is the men friends who make the journey, we also hear from the two women central to the tale. They may be absent from the group of men in the pub and the car but they are given voices—the more distinctive for their presence with us the readers while they are physically separate from the men who nominally occupy the centrestage of the action. A further difference, and the more concentrated for the sharpness it gives us, is that Swift's focus is on a narrower social range. It is the South London world of post-war small tradesmen, Chaucer's miller and carpenter would find a place in these pages but not his Knight or Wife of Bath. In fact, one of the remarkable feats of the novel is the extremely difficult trick of retaining a 'souf Lunden' voice in the pages of a sensitive, literate novel (a technique more reminiscent of Dickens than Chaucer) while being neither patronising nor sentimental, neither stereotypical nor unconvincingly too articulate for his characters.

This book is in more sense than one a return to Swift's roots. Technically, it recalls his first novel The Sweet Shop Owner, where the outward action is also focused on a single day. Many readers of Water-land, Swift's best-known book so far, are surprised to find that he was not born in the East Anglian landscape of that novel, but in London. Last Orders—with its evocation of lives in an apparently unremarkable, post-war corner of the city and its recurrent Swiftian concerns of secrets and betrayals, of unacknowledged sacri-fices, of the personal and the social and of outwardly ordinary lives shot through with universal significance—is, one suspects, much closer to home. Which is what makes it a great book.

If winning the Booker does its usual job of making Last Orders better known and draws a new circle of readers to the rest of Swift's work—The Sweet Shop Owner and Waterland have already been mentioned to which one should add Swift's exploration of the fallout from Second World intrigue in Shuttlecock, his exposure of photography and its metaphors in Out of this World, his evocation of English academia and American plastics in Ever After—then it will have done readers of contemporary fiction a great service. It's too late to place your bets on Last Orders but I recommend you spend your money on buying a copy.

(Readers interested in knowing more about Graham Swift's work can obtain a free pamphlet, by Richard Walker, at the British Council in Delhi, Calcutta, Chennai and Mumbai.)

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