(Re)constructions of History and (De)constructions of "Englishness

Part 3 of "History and 'Englishness' in Graham Swift's Last Orders

Heike Hartung-Brückner, Institut für Englische Philologie, Freie Universität Berlin

This rather melancholy, or even morbid, starting-point for story-telling is related to certain effects and uses of histories, and connected to clichÈs and images of "Englishness" that are invoked and questioned in Last Orders . In one of the reviews of this novel, Swift is even described as "a master of the terminal" (Poole, 1996, p. 29).

The novel's title refers to the "Last Orders " or last wish of Jack Dodds, a London butcher, who wants "his ashes to be chucked off the end of Margate pier" - in the words of Ray Johnson, one of the narrators. It also refers to the location from which the journey to Margate starts: to The Coach and Horses, a local pub in Bermondsey, south London, where Jack's friends order their "last" drink before embarking on their trip.

The narrative frame follows the chronological - and geographical - sequence of the day trip from London to Margate, which is frequently interrupted by the memories of the seven narrators. The journey - and it's cause: Jack's recent death, another absence - serves as the frame for the gradual emergence of a net of relationships, of intertwined histories in this local community. This frame is signalled by the chapter headings with place names, which trace the movements of the four friends in a very visual way, almost like road signs flashing up.

The multiple voices of the narrative are distinguished by the headings of the chapters - the narrator's first names.

The participants in the journey to Margate are three close friends of Jack, all in their late sixties: Ray Johnson, an insurance clerk and gambler, Vic Tucker, the undertaker, whose "family business" is situated next to Jack's butcher shop, and Lenny Tate, the ex-boxer. Their driver is Vince Dodds, the motor-dealer and adopted son of Jack and Amy, who picks up the other three in a showy "royal blue Merc". Ray's voice is the most prominent, he also narrates the chapters relating to the progress of the journey and its various detours. The second most frequently heard voice is that of Vince, followed by Lenny and Vic. Amy, Jack's wife, who along with Jack is a frequent presence in the memories of the four men, is also given a share in the narrative. Two single chapters are allotted to Mandy, Vince's wife, and to Jack himself.

Amy declines to join the men's tour, which she had asked Ray to organize at Jack's request. She is on her own, different journey, visiting her daughter June. June has been living in an institution for the mentally disabled all her life. While Amy has been visiting her regularly twice a week, Jack decided, at an early stage, to ignore the existence of his daughter. Amy's recollections revolve around the conflicts arising from these different choices and traces them to their beginnings - to her first encounter with Jack.

The passage in which Amy recalls her meeting with Jack in her youth is crucial for my reading of the novel. Amy describes her summer of escape from London when she worked as a "hop-picker" in Kent. Her memory depicts the atmosphere as filled with sensuality, leading to sexual permissiveness, and she resorts to clichÈd images in her description:

Doing it for free, getting it for free, down there in the garden of England, with the sunshine and the fresh air and the haystacks and the hop-bines, and that feeling, though it was stay-put and keep-at-it work, bins all in a row, three or four to a bin like a factory outdoors, of being set loose. On the loose. Living in huts and tents like natives, living on the land, no fixed abode. (LO, 234)

This cliché of "Englishness" - Kent as the garden of England - recurs throughout the novel, in Vince's memories and in the reactions of the three other men to the detour Vince takes to "Wick's Farm" in Kent.

In Amy's description the "garden of England" is associated with an exceptional state of liberty, which she experiences as a welcome contrast to her life in London. The familiar country-life associations, and the country-city dichotomy, in this cliché d image of national identity are placed here in a different context with Amy's emphasis on sexual curiosity, liberty, disorder and vagrancy. This cliché of "Englishness" is set against -- and counteracts with -- the one immediately following:

The gypsies came with their caravans and horses, needing the hopping just like us, but made their camp seperately, over by the wood, eyeing us like we were the ones who'd pitched up where we shouldn't, and I used to envy them because they were a stage further at being outlaws than us and because they were professionals at it and we were just amateurs and when we were back again in Bermondsey, all bricked up and boxed in, they'd still be wandering the woods and lanes. (LO, 235)

The cliché of the gypsy is presented as a form of romanticized racism, in a polarity reminiscent of primitivism, where the positive aspects of the "noble savage" are set against a decadent civilization. The liberating aspects of the "outlaw" status are highlighted, especially the aspect of sexuality which is important for Amy's remembrance of her younger self. The gypsies are constructed as the "other" against which Amy perceives her own - and her group - identity. At the same time, the social categories that are seemingly absent from the romanticized cliché are re-introduced. "... eyeing us like we were the one's who'd pitched up where we shouldn't" implies the reversal of the "normal" social categories in which the gypsies are regarded as the unwelcome intruders. The distinction between "amateur" and "professional" status of being "outlaws" also invokes social categories. Amy distances herself from the naivety of her younger self in the wording/formulation "I used to envy them".

The compound use of clichÈs in this passage can be seen as an example of three interdependent strategies of constructing "Englishness" in the contemporary novel. These strategies are described by Silvia Mergenthal, in the essay collection Unity in Diversity Revisited?, as "Us and Them", "Now and Then", and "Here and There". She distinguishes in these oppositions definitions of "Englishness" through people, through time, and through places. (1998, 52-3)

The passage I have presented, which is representative in its use of clichés, -- since the whole novel and the language of its protagonists is riddled with clichés, stereotypes, and proverbial sayings -- seems to confirm Kate Flint's criticism of Last Orders . In her contribution to the Unity in Diversity essay collection, which is entitled " Looking Backwards? The Relevance of Britishness", she places the narrow "Britishness" of such authors as John Fowles, A. S. Byatt, and Graham Swift against the alternative identity of England as an immigrant culture. This alternative concept of a composite and multicultural English history and identity figures in the works of -- amongst others -- Hanif Kureishi and Salman Rushdie.

Swift's Last Orders serves as a demonstration case for Flint's dismissal of the "British" type of authors and their way of "looking backward":

All of this is writing which solipsistically reinforces certain dominant trends within cultural historiography, however revisionist such historiography may be, and however much it may, in turn, have rewritten the dominant ways in which the British past has come to be seen. (Unity in Diversity Revisited?, 40)

Swift's novel is criticized for its "narrow-minded parochialism" (Unity in Diversity Revisited?, 43). Its emphasis on ritual and collectivity - in the frame-journey - is seen as a reactionary affirmation of fossilized history:

... the ritual that is performed by the narrative in Last Orders involves the affirmation of a certain view of England, both tacitly, between the men, and more generally, in its incorporation of the reader into a certain form of nostalgia for a fading way of life. (Unity in Diversity Revisited?, 40)

Although Kate Flint acknowledges the fact that this collective ritual - of the day trip to Margate to scatter Jack's ashes - brings out the tensions between the protagonists - "tensions which are rooted in the histories of their dysfunctional families" (UiD, 40) - she misreads the novel's tendency towards unity as a form of reactionary nostalgia.

As I showed with reference to Swift's earlier narrators, an awareness of crisis or loss is the starting point for "looking backwards" and for story-telling. The search for identity and continuity is presented as a fragile and contested process in which history appears both in its deadening and fossilizing aspects and in its therapeutic or constructive uses for a re-entry into the present. It is never seen as a stable place of return, as a nostalgic museum for escape. The same is true for Last Orders , and the instrument for the paradoxical synthesis to be achieved here is the use of cliché.

I want to return again to the "garden of England" cliché and to the context in which Amy uses it. As I mentioned before, the chapter describes Amy's first meeting with Jack. It also describes their first sexual encounter, in which June is conceived. Jack figures in her recollections as a kind of substitute - a substitute for one of the gypsies Amy fancied, Romany Jim, whom she describes as inaccessible:

I played with Jack Dodds instead, Jack Dodds from the other end of Bermondsey. (...) He was a muscle man too, a big man, even bigger, if not so trim. (...) And I knew he had his eye on me, down there on the next row of bins, I knew he had his feelers out. Whereas Romany Jim wouldn't grant you a glance, a flick of his head, not while you might be looking back. (LO, 235)

The clichéd images are linked with her life-story and her view of its development. She presents her history as a mixture of accidents, chance encounters and events, sometimes with fatal consequences, and attempts at controlling and influencing developments. The result seems, in her backward look, to be a failed struggle against fatalism. The estrangement from her husband Jack is related to the daughter, June, to whom she addresses her thoughts. She ponders different possibilities, different choices -- like an abortion- - and recalls her attempts to fend off guilt:

But it was only after you arrived that I felt him tug away, tug and twist and turn against me at the same time, as if it really was all my fault now, my problem, not his. There you are, you see, look what happens. And it would've been better all along, wouldn't it, if we'd done what other couples do when a hot night in a hop field catches up with them? But I thought, It's not a punishment, because one thing leads to another, it's not a punishment. The important thing is not to take it as a punishment. (LO, 238)

She goes on to describe her failed attempt to get closer to Jack, when she arranges a "honeymoon" weekend trip to Margate. She even refers to the second World War as a possibility of change, of lethal change:

I thought the war might change things, put everything in its place. (...) I thought, he might be killed. Or I might. Or you might. A stray bomb on a home for the hopeless, no one need grieve, a mercy really. What hard-nosed. But what the war did was to push things even further the way they'd gone. (LO, 239)

The event she refers to as cementing their drifting apart is the appearance of Vince. Vince, who is orphaned during the war, and becomes their adopted surrogate son. Vince introduces another antagonism and serves as an "occupation" for Jack, as she states in a laconic way:

From then on it was me and you, and him and Vince. Meaning him and Vince against each other, him and Vince at daggers drawn, cleavers drawn. But it keeps men together, it keeps them occupied, fighting. Yes it was here, Vince, here. This was where. Here, in the garden of. (LO, 240)

Her return to the clichÈ here is stripped off its romantic connotations. Even though she retains positive aspects in her remembrance of this scene and location of "origins", it is seen at the same time as the starting-point for unbridgeable conflicts.

The past is not depicted as a place of retreat, or as an alternative to the present. The aspects that are seen as positive in Amy's backward look are connected with their transitory quality. The presence of the moment is emphasized, stripped of its consequences and removed from sequence, from history.

This quality of "in-between-ness" is described by Amy, a little earlier on, as a positive value, when she links her idea of being at home with travelling. Movement "in between" - even in this patterned form, referring to her visits to June - is seen here as the liberating space for identity, even if it is a transitory and a small space:

This is where I belong, upstairs on this bus. It seems to me that for years now I've been more at home on a number 44 than I have been anywhere else. Neither here nor there, just travelling in between. (LO, 228)

At the same time, she realizes the fossilizing aspects of the pattern of her habitual visits to June, when she compares the roles into which she and her husband had settled after their antagonistic choices:

I chose June not him. I watched him set solid into Jack Dodds the butcher, Jack Dodds, high-class butcher, have a bit of mince, missis, have a bit of chuck, because he couldn't choose June too, couldn't choose what was his, it was all he had to do, and I thought I'm the one who can still change. I did, once. But when he looked at me then, like he was looking at someone I wasn't, I knew I was stuck in a mould of my own. Of this woman who sits every Monday and Thursday afternoon on a number 44 bus. Even a week after her husband has died. (LO, 229)

She describes herself, in the last chapter given to her voice, as a visitor, both in relation to June and in relation to Jack. Her own journey to June, while the men are scattering Jack's ashes, is transformed in the end into a final good-bye both to her daughter and her husband. She leaves the transitory space of the visitor in order to get on with her own life:

What I'm trying to say is Goodbye June. Goodbye Jack. They seem like one and the same thing. We've got to make our own lives now without each other, we've got to go our different ways. I've got to think of my own future. (LO, 278)

In this detailed look at Amy's voice and at her journey I have neglected the narrative frame of the trip to Margate. Kate Flint's criticism of the novel for its reactionary selectivity is mainly directed against this frame, as seen, e. g., in the places presented in the various detours:

... Swift's South London, or at least the South London of his characters, seems self-protectingly free of all possible multiculturalism. 'Abroad' is primarily where they fought in the war; their recollections of this, and their visit to the Navy's memorial obelisk at Chatham help, as in culture more widely, to generate and consolidate memories that provide powerful nationalistic integrative forces even in peacetime. (UiD, 40-41)

Again, the same shifting and deconstructive use of cliché. which I showed with reference to Amy's voice is at work throughout the novel. The emphatic selection of places as symbols for traditionalist concepts of national identity and history - the Chatham Memorial, Canterbury Cathedral, and also the "garden-of-England" clichÈ at work in Vince's detour to "Wick's Farm" in Kent - is counteracted in the paradoxical use made of them. This can be demonstrated with a look at the detour to Chatham.

The proposal to visit the war memorial comes from Vic, the undertaker, and is perceived by Ray as one of his pacifying acts. The four men have taken a lunch break, and Lenny's hostility against Vince becomes manifest in this scene. Vic, the "master of ceremonies" and impartial observer, intervenes:

Vic says: "I was wondering-"

You can trust Vic to do his peace-keeping act. (...)

Vince shakes the sachet even though it's empty, then screws it up. He looks up. "What was you wondering, Vic?" He smiles, calm and polite, and sips his coffee.

"I was wondering, as we're close, if we could pop over to Chatham and see the memorial. I've never--" (LO, p. 114)

The detour, meant to de-escalate the open aggression between Vince and Lenny, serves on the contrary to highten the tensions between the men, since they get lost on their way:

Lenny says, panting: "He never said it was up no bleeding hill." He never did, and he never said he didn't know where it was. When we stop and ask, they say, There it is, on top of that hill, see, you can't miss it, naval memorial, white tower. It's sticking up like a lighthouse for all to see, with a green ball on top instead of a beacon, it's a landmark. Except no one says how you get there and there are no signs. It's a funny memorial that no one remembers the way to. (LO, p. 119)

The description of the climb up the path to where the memorial is supposed to be provides a striking and ironical contrast to its nationalist symbolism. Especially the older men are presented -- by Ray himself - in humiliating, even ridiculous poses -- in their panting for breath, and in Lenny's and Ray's need to get rid of the beer they have drunk. When they finally reach the top of the hill and the memorial, Ray stresses the provisionality of the search for unity, and also of the ritualized and bonding aspects of their journey on Jack's behalf, in his awareness of paradox:

It's like it got built then forgotten. Vince is going on ahead, getting closer, Vic's following behind. It's like it was only half meant to be here and so were we, but here we are, together, on top of this hill. It's like an effort at dignity, that's what it's like, it's like a big tall effort at dignity. (LO, 122)

The thoughts of the men in connection with the Chatham detour again demonstrate the shifting and ambiguous relationship to this place and its symbolism.

Vince's and Lenny's voices during the visit to Chatham are concerned with the general atmosphere of tension between the men. Vince's sole contribution here is "Old buggers." (LO, 130). Lenny's thoughts revolve around his resentments, which are extended to a feeling of being left out and of not really belonging to the group:

Well I suppose I'm the odd one out here, I'm the odd man out on this whole caper, just along for the ride and the beer, and the hill-climbing. (LO, 131)

He defines his relationship to Jack, and his reasons for coming, as a sense of duty - an obligation which is related to his daughter Sally, who continually recurs in his reflections as another absence, since he has broken off all contact with her. His use of duty here is much more connected to his personal - and often voiced - feelings of resentment than to any more "traditional" sense of the word:

The only reason I'm here, if you don't count being his regular boozing partner for close on forty years, is because of Sally. Is because Jack took her to the seaside when we couldn't take her ourselves. It was a kindness, one of the few that girl ever got. And now I'm taking Jack. It's a question of duty. (LO, 132)

In Vic's memories family history and war remembrances are juxtaposed. He recalls his decision to become an undertaker like his father, which is put to him like a test, at the time when his grandfather dies. His later decision to join the navy during the second World War is presented here as the alternative choice of "running away to sea" (LO, 126). This clichÈ - or "foolish notion" - is at the same time described as a disillusioning experience, since the preoccupation is with death in both cases:

He said he wouldn't hold me to it, I should choose my own life. Just because he and Gramps, just because the name of Tucker. But at least I shouldn't decide without knowing, and seeing, at least I shouldn't decide against out of unfounded fears. So I said yes, like it was my test. So he showed me, explaining, and I saw that there was, really, nothing to fear, nothing to be afraid of. It even made you feel a little calmer, surer. I was fourteen years old, the two of us together in the parlour. Three of us. So later I said, "Yes, all right." Your life cut out for you, your chances altered. And then it was too late to have any other foolish notions, like running away to sea. (LO, 125-6)

The memories referring back to Vic's time with the navy present him in an isolated position, because of his "Civilian occupation: undertaker's assistant." (LO, 125). He embraces the role which is associated with him as the "ship's bogeyman" (LO, 126). He is both evaded and treated with respect:

Don't go on Tucker's watch, not if you can help it, don't be on Tucker's fire party. As if it were a way of altering your chances. (LO, p. 125)

Tucker'll see to Œem, it's what he's good for. After a while I even earned respect, consideration. (LO, 126)

Chatham is significant for Vic as a symbol of his choice of life with the dead. The chapter highlights his levelling and distanced attitude towards life - a disillusioned attitude which blends out the possibility of choice and of alternatives:

But I know about the dead, I know about dead people, and I know that the sea is all around us anyway. Even on land we're all at sea, even on this hill high above Chatham where I can read the names. All in our berths going to our deaths. Floating coffins. (LO, 125)

Ray's attitude to the memorial relates the overwhelming anonymity of the lists of names of dead men to the "mathematics" he is more familiar with. The finality and senselessness of the lists is compared with calculations with chance elements in insurance and gambling, Ray's twin occupations:

And you can't tell nothing by looking at the lists because there aren't no odds quoted, there aren't no SPs. You can run your eyes down a card, when you're used to it, and work it out in your head that the bookies won't suffer, that the punter's going to lose. Like the insurance houses can do their sums and know they aren't going to come off worse in the long run, no matter what bad luck hits Joe Average Insured. There's always the gamble to make you think you're in with a chance and there's always the larger mathematics to make you think you should've saved your money and kept up your premiums. It depends on the underlying attitude. (LO, 127)

The comparison leads him to a fatalist attitude, to an equation of his own life with surviving. But the chance element re-introduces the possibility of change and of action:

But I reckon I could do it, I could still turn it into living again. I could forget the larger mathematics and take the gamble. Live a little, live again. (LO, 128)

Here, the reference frame of calm calculations provides a contrast to the pompous inscription on the memorial, which Ray notices at the end of the chapter and of his reflections):

Over the top is says, "All These Were Honoured In Their Generations And Were The Glory of Their Times." (LO, 129)]

The paradoxical synthesis of unity and diversity in Swift's treatment of history and "Englishness" is achieved in Last Orders through its contradictory use of cliché and national symbols. Swift's recurrent concern with history, both in its fossilizing aspects and in its constructive, therapeutic uses for the present is different from a nostalgia for things past and "English".

History and "Englishness" in Graham Swift's Last Orders


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