Wish You Were Here notes 1

Wish You Were Here
by Graham Swift
2012 / 336 pages

These were written as I read – Please note again –  “I am SOOO glad I finished this book!”   (Also note there are 2 pages to these notes – >>> page 2 >>> 

Okay,  like Swift is an excellent writer,  he’s got the background and awards and I’ve read 2 of his books,  “Final Orders” and Waterland,”   prior – both wonderful.   But from the first several pages of Wish You Were Here I’m feeling dread.

After the first set-up pages we have memories of memorials given for some brothers killed in WWI.  The characters are named  Jack and Michael and Tom and what next – Bob,  John and Joe? How am I going to keep these guys straight?   So Michael (the dad), Jack,  and Tom Luxton (the sons) are bemoaning the loss of cattle on the Jebb Farm.

Chapter 1 opens with Jack’s remembering as he watches the new cattle catastrophe reported on the news – first it was “mad cow” (1985-6 or so)  and now it’s “foot-and-mouth” (2001?).   With the latter the cows were burned in pyres (see photos).

Good info: Rural Voice  (short and to the point)

Jack is not in the cattle business anymore but in the caravan resort business – and the resort is on the Isle of Wight.   (photo below)

Ellie, Jack’s wife,  has taken the car somewhere and a storm is brewing.  Jack puts his shotgun and cartridges on the bed and looks out the window.  He’s the last of the Luxtons but Ellie is an issue for some reason.   He looks for her car and thinks of the new name of the “resort”  Lookout Caravan Park in place of the Sands.

Chapter 2.

We are taken back to the days of Jack’s youth when he and Tom, his brother, were told stories by Vera,  their mother (I think).   It seems that in WWI, about a century ago,  George Luxton and his brother Fred were both killed in battle – on the same day – one was a hero for grabbing a gun,  the other just died.  The medal was given to George but it wasn’t sure who deserved it.  So for all their lives George is lionized but Fred was also very brave.  But although Jack and Tom may have both been Vera’s sons ( who knows?),  one is the son of  George and one the son of Fred.  –  Swift does not clarify things – very irritating –

Jack goes to the contemporary time (?) Remembrance Day ceremonies but Tom is not there.  Vera is deceased by now.  Jack’s dad, Michael,  is alive –  (so Vera is Jack’s grandmother?)  and wearing his own father’s “suit”  (uniform?).   I guess there’s a new war because

“… extra somberness … that owed something to Tom’s absence, but just as much to the devastations that had visited the region’s farms in recent years, – to the war still rumbling on, though the thing had passed its peak, with the cow disease.”    (?)
War is Afghanistan –  2001 –  Iran – ?

Chapter 3 – more background,  history,  Jack feels Vera’s presence and wonders what she would think –  Jack was special – he had a legacy – the farm – and now look.

Chapter 4 – Same lament – what would his mother think.  Jack married Ellie and kept the farm but lost it and now has a resort of caravans by the sea in Waite,  vacations in the Caribbean.  All with a gun on the bed,  waiting for Ellie to return.  Tom and Vera walk together according to Jack.  He’s the only one left.

Chapter 5 – Ellie has left in the jeep to visit her mother’s grave.  Her mother left her dad for some “mystery man” and then did that again.  Uncle Tony is a kind of step father who has loaned Jack and Ellie money to set up.   Ellie is now stranded in the rain.  If Jack is going to honor his ancestors then she is going to honor hers.   But she has very conflicted feelings about her mother who abandoned their family but also provided an example – and then we’re treated to some more of Ellie’s history with her father’s death, her mother’s leaving (much earlier) and her relationship with Jack.


ME:  Chronology is a non-starter here.  The book starts in the past with Jack and Tom and Michael – but it goes further back and then to the future of that.  There are also side trips for what “might have been” or what folks “could have done.

Everyone has a history – they live with it – twisted though it is.

Chapter 6 –
The text goes back through the cow disease and the deaths and money. Tom left the farm to join the army when he was 19.  Jack thought he was escaping for both of them.  When Vera died Tom had taken on the homemaker role.  Michael (Dad) started to shrink and go mad.  The farm is in Oxfordshire –

“First Mum, then Tom. In between, most of their livestock carried off for incineration.”

They need a mom and Ellie,  whose mother has just left, is not available for Jack – not yet.  The fathers,  Michael Luxton and Jimmy Merrick,   are both wife-less in a doomed cow situation and they don’t much care for each other.   Then Tom runs off.  Jack and Ellie act married but a “real marriage” is  impossible.  (They have sex in the afternoon while the dads are away.)  WIth the cow disease it’s not permitted but they do anyway.

ME:  Sigh – another foreshadowing of something in the past yet to be revealed.  Ho-hum.  Are they “Really” siblings?  or 1st cousins?  Why is marriage between them impossible?

Omg!  If this is going to be one reminiscence after another to the end where Jack shoots Ellie or makes up with her it’s going to be a long slog.


Chapter 7
A letter arrives (the morning or day before “real” time – the time of the gun on the bed) which tells of Tom’s death.  And now they’re on the Isle of Wight with the caravan resort  – going to St. Lucia etc.  “If he’d had an inkling…”

ME:  That’s foreshadowing in the past – “if I’d known then…”  and not telling the reader –

And another irritation is the “he shouldn’t have said that”  or “she shouldn’t have said that” and not tell the reader what –  “she shouldn’t have said” refers to “at least it was in the off season” about Tom’s death.  What did he say in response?  We don’t know yet.  Swift doesn’t like to tell stories straight out.

Chap 7 continues:
“Though now,  Jack thinks,  they won’t have to face any music at all.”   And the reader is to assume Jack is planning to kill Ellie and himself –  I guess.

ME:   What does one do with foreshadowing?  And then Swift brings in terror and terrorism.

Chapter 8 (only page 56)
Ellie suggests the caravans resort (Jack is coming across as a seriously and deliberately weak character)  – prior – Jack goes with family on vacation and sends Ellie a postcard. “Wish you were here.”   She’s jealous?  Her mother leaves.

ME:   Chronology is very, very important to Swift.  That’s why he scrambles it all up and puts pieces of the story back in where they go.   In Chapter 8:

“And after he’d come back and spouted on about the good time he’d had, she hadn’t even given him much of a thank-you for that postcard or seemed to want to pursue the subject. By which Jack understood, at least by the second time around, that she was jealous.

And then her mum had skedaddled. ” (pg 58)

The same thing happens and affects different lives in different ways at different points in their own lives.  The chronology of Ellie’s Mom’s story is the same, date wise, as the chronology of the stories of Ellie and Jack and Jimmy (Ellie’s dad) but the impact is different because of the arc of their own lives.

Chap 8 cont.

Come to find out that Alice (Ellie’s mom) married Tony, an old rich guy who died – Alice inherited a caravan resort called The Sands which is now Ellie’s.  Memories of a caravan trip as a child.

p.  67:   “But, at the same time, there was something a bit misfit and oddball about the two of them. There didn’t seem to be any little Luxtons, you couldn’t even be sure if they were really married. Something just a bit hillbilly.”

Could this be another incidence of incest – emotional and/or physical – there’s the way Mom treats Jack and Jack pretends to be Dad (Michael) and way back when Jack and Ellie can’t marry for “REAL” and now there’s this no “little Luxtons” and the  “hillbilly” thing.
8 cont.

Pg 67  “They’ve been doing the caravan thing for 10 years and Jack is concerned about Tom – ”

“The smell of cow dung mingling with earth, the cheapest, lowliest of smells, but the best. Who wouldn’t wish for that as their birthright and their last living breath?”
Chapter 9
They got the letter 9 days ago –  This is now getting repetitious – Ellie dragged Jack up to the bedroom.  ”

Jack knew what was in the letter before he opened it.  Remembering Tom and how Jack benefits – Ellie benefited from her mom’s death.

“People could help by dying. Yes, they could. No, they couldn’t. He could see that Ellie’s position was going to be that this was his, Jack’s, business, he shouldn’t dump it on her. Next of kin, and Ellie wasn’t. Ellie, when all was said, and despite that marriage ceremony ten years ago in Newport, was a Merrick. He could see that Ellie’s position, if he pushed her, was going to be that he had helped Tom make his departure all those years ago, had seen Tom off. A nd wasn’t the last thing he’d wanted, or wanted these days anyway, was for Tom to show his face again?”

Chapter 10
Jack cries because of the letter and remembers crying or not crying.  Wonders about Tom  and Ellie but dismisses it.  He thinks of all the things he could have/should have said (I guess he’s still thinking all htis from the bedroom with the gun on the bed waiting for Ellie).   He says “I think we’d better cancel Santa Lucia.”  and she ???

Chapter 11
Major Richards visits to tell them (next and last of kin) the news of Tom’s death.  Lots of padding here – all about Richards.  Same narrative voice though –

Chapter 12
Tom could do everything better than Jack – or so it seems to Jack.  Jack wonders about Tom and girls/women – Jack was a sticker – Tom was a leaver.  Jack almost wishes Ellie had been with Tom –  why –  so Jack wouldn’t be so lonely in his grief,  so Jack would have “won” something in spite of Tom,  ??   He did rock him in that old cradle – an heirloom.

Jack doesn’t want children – no more.  Not after they all left.  Ellie suggests the caravans in the big bed.

Chapter 13
Major Richards leaves and Ellie won’t go to funeral – Ellie feels like the score is equal – they are both alone – she never had a sibling was jealous,  neither has a father,  they’ve been caring for their fathers,  neither has a mother,  one ran away and one died.  Now she can have him and children.  She treasured the postcard from Jack.

“She’d seen the bit of Jack that belonged to Tom, even though he was dead, only growing bigger and the bit of Jack that was hers only growing smaller. And then Jack had said that thing about St. Lucia.”

That’s why she’s gone.

Chapter 14
Jack’s point of view plus a lot of  “could have said,” “would have said” stuff.   Ellie said “He’s not my little brother.”  (Ellie is very jealous.) – funeral details,  inner turmoil

The Luxtun farm is in Oxfordshire –

Chapter 15
“Three days ago” Jack left for casket ceremonies – travels –

Chapter 17 – Tom
Backstory of Luke – sick, killed by dad –

Chapter 18  –
Back to Jack traveling

Chapter 19
Tom and Luke – the blanket like a flag – whose pov? Jack’s?
Jack thinking in bedroom with Ellie gone – Ellie moved in after the death of the dads and made a “clean sweep.”

Chapter 20
Jack at ceremonies – and the tale is pretty straightforward for a couple chapters – the arrival of the caskets,  the drive to the cemetery.  Jack is alone. His brother is a commander.  Jack strips hearse of flag,  clutches the coffin and mentally calls Tom the runaway – deserter –  very confused.   Gave money to drivers.

Tom was the traitor, my lords and ladies, Tom was the deserter, the runaway. Running away from the war against cow disease and agricultural ruin. And against his own embattled father. Good luck, Tom.

Chapter 21
Remembering Tom’s birthday and joining service

Chapter 22
Richards and hearse drivers – points of view not the same as Jack’s
The drivers definitely feel a presence with them in the hearse- a “third person.’ .

Chapter 23 – Tom
saw cows die on TV and remembered it.  Foreshadowing of someone named Willis who died – letters received but not responded to – emotional response to letters

Chapter 24 – Ellie
Sits in car thinking – her memories of Jack leaving for ceremonies – *can’t even get to her mom’s grave.*   (lives totally in the future)

PAGE 2 >>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

Title:   “So I joined the army, Jack. Now here I am in sunny Basra. Wish you were here. No, not really. Remember me to Ellie.”

NOTES –  most of this is going on inside Jack’s head but Ellie has a bit here or there – they are the only ones living of the cast of characters –  Vera, Michael, Tom,  Alice,  Jimmy, Tony,  George,  Frank and others are dead.

Jack seems to live with the ghosts in the past,  Ellie seems to live with her dreams in the future and Tom lived in, but then died in the present.

Themes –  madness,  change, memory,  the presence of history / past lives in today – care-taking,

Allusions/metaphors –   filling kettles,   cows-women,  eggs – ovaries (Mom died of ovarian cancer) and of course,  cows and caravans –

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