2nd February 1996 at 00:00
The pub clock, dated 1884, appears on page one of Graham Swift's Last Orders (Picador Pounds 15.99) and time presides over this novel with a measured relentlessness that spans lifetimes within a single day: time passing, time remembered, time running out.

Ray Johnson, insurance clerk, Vic Tucker, undertaker and Lenny Tate, market trader, meet in the Coach and Horses to begin a last journey from Bermondsey with their old mate Jack Dodds the butcher, whose wish it was that his ashes be scattered off Margate pier. Jack's adopted son, Vince, a used-car salesman, does the driving on this trip with its sundry boozy halts and unplanned detours which register an elegiac Englishness: the farm where Jack and his widow Amy first met hop-picking before the war, the Chatham Navy memorial, and Canterbury cathedral, waylaying these unwitting pilgrims like an ancient magnet.

Their tales - secrets, grudges, disappointments and might-have-beens of life - unfold in a series of inter-cutting interior monologues that give shifting, advancing perspectives. These are solitary yet connected voices whose working-class speech is sprinkled with ageing wartime idioms. The war marks all of them: Jack and Ray met in the Libyan Desert, each ascribing the luck of his survival to the other; Vince was the infant survivor of a bomb that wiped out his family.

These are characters who inhabit a world rooted in the past, airlessly compacted and back-turned to the changes of the present; their voices persuasively alive yet already archaic, their sense of masculinity still buoyant but troubled, by daughters - unheard here - and wives: loyal, long-suffering or long-gone. Two women break clearly through these blokish ranks: Mandy, Vince's wife, and, chiming in with increasingly disruptive and desperate authority, the widowed Amy.

But the voice that dominates is Ray's; lucky Ray whose ability to back winning horses has almost miraculous significance. The novel itself is something of a wonder, its richness deriving from what is unsaid by these loosened tongues as well as from their vigour.

Swift attends to Englishness within the space of locality and the specificities of class. In Julian Barnes' writing it hovers as a state of mind. The stories in his Cross Channel (Cape Pounds 13.99) often play on types and stereotypes, on the curiosities of far-flung history, to investigate the British romance with France, something which involves a liberating change of mental landscape, besides that of diet and scene.

Here, the English are rosbifs, muscled meat-eaters, navvies on the Le Havre-Paris railway more than a century ago. A cricketing episode coincides with the outbreak of the French Revolution. Passions of sorts between men and men, women and women, faithful sister and brother in his grave are stamped with signs of eccentricity. A serene fulfilment of daily life exchanged for something truer to the self comes in the fin-de si cle tale of a devoted lesbian couple and their vineyards.

"Experiment" is a shaggy dog story that pokes fun as much at the Surrealists as at the stock English bore who finds himself incongruously among them. The subtler "Gnossienne" has the narrator detect a whiff of Oulipo (which once included Perec and Calvino) in an enigmatic invitation to a writers' gathering. Barnes combines Anglo-Saxon irony with the more continental interest in speculative fictional play.

Variable Cloud (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Pounds 15.99) is a novel by Carmen Mart!n Gaite, now 70. It has a Madrid-in-the-90s feel to it that is occasionally reminiscent of Almodovar's zany moments on screen; picaresque coincidences shape the plot and incidental characters give good mileage. Two friends, Mariana, a much-partnered but never married psychiatrist, and Sofia, a housewife and mother hanging on to a marriage that never was good,meet by chance in middle age and begin writing to one another after many years of rupture.

There is much to like in this spirited novel, for all its rambling length and traces of social complacency. Mart!n Gaite has been little translated so far; in the event she is very well served by Margaret Jull Costa.

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