[(essay date summer 2003) In the following essay, Craps argues that class issues are an important part of any reflection on the ethical dimensions of Last Orders.]
I'm remembering what Jack said, in the desert, that we're all the same underneath, officers and ranks, all the same material. Pips on a man's shoulders don't mean a tuppenny toss.--Graham Swift, Last Orders 27-28
The Class War is over.--Tony Blair, Labour Party Conference, Bournemouth, 1999
What costs humanity very dearly is doubtless to believe that one can have done in history with a general essence of Man, on the pretext that it represents only a Hauptgespenst, arch-ghost, but also, what comes down to the same thing--at bottom--to still believe, no doubt, in this capital ghost. To believe in it as do the credulous or the dogmatic. Between the two beliefs, as always, the way remains narrow.--Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx 175
Last Orders (1996) was a new departure for Graham Swift, his first sustained attempt (except The Sweet Shop Owner, his debut novel in 1980) to represent a social milieu markedly different from the middle-class environment that he normally portrays. Whereas the protagonists and primary narrators in his previous books had tended to be educated, highly articulate middle-class men (an archivist, a history teacher, a photojournalist, a university don), Last Orders presents us with a retired insurance clerk, a grocer, an undertaker, a used-car salesman, and a butcher, all inhabitants of upper-lower-class Bermondsey.1 Using multiple first-person narration, Last Orders tells the story of a group of old friends who are preparing to honor the last wishes of Jack Dodds, a deceased butcher, who has asked that his ashes be scattered off the end of Margate pier. In part, the book is the story of the men's car journey from South London, through Kent, to the Kentish coast; in part, it is a collection of reminiscences by each of the characters. Critics and author alike have been dismissive of the class issue in Last Orders, which they see as a mere distraction from what they consider to be the novel's central preoccupation with the articulation of a humanist ethics of sympathy.2 I take this failure to address properly the issue of class as a point of departure for a reflection on the ethical dimension of Swift's novel, and of literature at large, in which I take issue with some of the more established views on the subject.
I begin with a few words about the novel's reception. Almost unanimously, critics have praised Swift's "virtuoso facility for inhabiting other voices" (Quinn) and the overwhelming effect of realism and authenticity resulting from this act of ventriloquism, which is said inevitably to elicit an empathic response from the reader. In its insistence on "the essential dignity of humble people" (Banville), Swift's novel has been perceived as a warm plea for human interconnectedness and sympathy. Melissa Bennetts reads Last Orders as "a poignant set of variations on John Donne's theme 'No man is an island.' It...