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June 3, 2011 10:06 pm

Wish You Were Here

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Wish You Were Here, by Graham Swift, Picador, RRP£18.99, 256 pages

 

Every few weeks the residents of Wootton Bassett line the streets of their small Wiltshire town to pay their respects to the repatriated dead of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. The dignified procession of a flag-draped coffin, a short notice in the papers and tributes by grieving relatives tell of brief lives. The soldiers dying in our wars tend not to come from the classes of those writing opinion pieces about the conflict, but from an unseen and unknown middle England that has few literary chronicles.

This, however, is Graham Swift’s territory. His landmark works, Waterland and the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders, document overlooked lives beyond the middle classes, whether in the East Anglian Fens or working-class south London. His quiet, unadorned style has always been suited to the inarticulate. In his new novel, Wish You Were Here, he places one of those returning coffins in the context of what has happened to rural England in the past 40 years. Two brothers, Jack and Tom Luxton, big strong men, each with “a brick of a face”, grow up on a farm in Devon near a village where the name Luxton is inscribed on the local war memorial. Nearly 100 years earlier, two Luxton brothers, George and Fred, went off to fight in the first world war and were killed together, yet only one was awarded the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal) for bravery: who was the outstanding soldier? Their commanding officer knows he has two Luxtons but can’t tell them apart. Arbitrarily he awards the medal to George, not Fred, on the grounds that he has the more patriotic name.

In the 1990s Tom runs away from home aged 18 to join the army while Jack stays at home to inherit the farm after their father Michael’s suicide. This is an English countryside of shotguns, mad cow disease, absconding wives – a violent landscape from which farm boys, already handy with a rifle, are recruited to become snipers in foreign lands. Tom goes awol, not from the army but from family life; through tours of duty in Bosnia and Iraq, he ignores his brother’s letters. The sickening sight of burning cows during the BSE epidemic is enough to allow Jack to be persuaded by his wife Ellie that they should sell up and move away from Devon. The farmhouse is bought as a weekend home by a banker and his wife, entranced by the spreading oak tree with its mysterious and romantic hole (the place where the bullet passed through Michael Luxton’s brain and embedded itself in the trunk).

On the proceeds, Jack and Ellie buy a caravan park on the Isle of Wight, where Jack regards the holidaymakers as “a form of livestock”. They take their own holidays in St Lucia, becoming livestock there. It is on the Isle of Wight that they receive a visit from the army with news of Tom’s death in action; Jack must go to RAF Lyneham, the airbase near Wootton Bassett, to oversee the arrangements for his brother’s body to be brought home to his childhood village for burial.

Swift is interested in the nature of the sibling relationship and the way it cuts out others, notably Ellie. Who was the braver: the boy who ran away to join the army, or the one who stuck it out to manage the decline of their rural heritage? One way or the other, Jack feels haunted, both by his brother’s violent death and by that of his father. Ellie can feel “beneath the skin, beneath the imaginary bruises from his father, the wound of Tom’s departure hidden in Jack’s heavy flesh”. The Luxton men seem fated to die by gunshot or explosion, and their women seem fated to leave.

Swift uses the third person to narrate these events, largely through the perspective of Jack. Briefly we discover why Tom has never answered any letters – no great revelation – and how he died. Perhaps this aspect of the novel could have borne greater development, as could the glimpse of the new owners of the family farm who sense that something is not quite right in that colour-supplement landscape. Rural England is theirs now; they literally own it without understanding it. Ellie understands them though, knowing how much the ancient oak will add to the value of the property, and almost maliciously leaving behind for them the ghost of the suicide.

These marginal elements in the narrative place at the heart of the book Jack and his journey to collect his brother’s body and take it home for burial. Jack is one of the ignored men of England, rooted for so long and then uprooted. Once he sets foot on the Isle of Wight he can hardly bear to leave it. Swift works hard to convey Jack’s inchoate sensations of grief, rage, homesickness and stubborn insistence on understanding the mystery of his father’s death and his brother’s running away, even his temporary descent into madness. But his plain unlyrical prose, so suited to Jack’s thinking, starts to induce numbness after a while. We spend too long inside his head. Still, Wish You Were Here fills a significant gap in contemporary fiction’s account of the England beyond the metropolitan borders.

Linda Grant is author of ‘We Had It So Good’ (Virago)

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