A quartet of Cockney lives lost and redeemed
Wednesday 30 October 1996
He has held a place in the British novel reader's heart since his third novel, Waterland, was shortlisted in 1983. On that occasion, dismayingly for his home supporters, he was pipped to the prize by JM Coetzee, the South African recluse, with his grindingly depressing Life and Times of Michael K. Long-term Booker watchers recall the huge roar that went up when Swift, then 34, stepped up to receive his bound-volume consolation prize.
Waterland was probably the finest British novel of the Eighties, only eclipsed, if at all, by Martin Amis's Money or Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Swift's tale - part lecture, part history lesson, part concession, part quasi-biblical rant - took the Fens and flatlands of East Anglia and enthused them with Dickensian magic. Subsequent novels failed to reach the same heights: Out of this World and Ever After were well-crafted, multi-vocal excursions into loss and grief, but lacked the imaginative motor of Waterland.
Last Orders, the Booker winner, concerns the journey taken from Bermondsey to Margate Pier by four ageing cockneys, Vince, Vic, Lennie and Ray, to deposit the ashes of their friend (and Vince's adopted father) Jack Dodds, a family butcher, into the cold swell of the Thames.
As the quartet of quarrelling, drinking companions inches through the traffic, their past lives, their fractured careers and secret intersections are gradually revealed: we loop back to the war to V-1 rockets, the Desert Rats, to boxing and babies and betrayal - and gradually a whole community of Londoners seems to radiate from the back of Vince's posh Mercedes.
It is a strange, low-key, but powerfully moving evocation of lives lost and redeemed that brings this multi-talented Londoner the big prize at last.
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