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Jonathan Coe: Bournville

A few weeks ago I read and reviewed Ian McEwan‘s most recent novel Lessons. One of the key themes of the novel was how certain major world events affected the main character, a man who was the same age as McEwan, though whose life was very different from McEwan’s.

Jonathan Coe’s novel is very different but they do share one thing in that he too focusses in on key events (though primarily British events or events seem from the British perspective) which affect his main characters. Unlike McEwan, he does not focus on one character but an extended family. The characters are not in any way based on real people, according to Coe himself in the afterword, with one exception: the main female character, Mary Lamb, née Clarke, is based on his mother.

Coe is clearly interested as much in the extended family as in any individuals and while some individuals in the family play a larger role than others – Mary Lamb and her youngest son Peter in particular- Coe is far more interested in family interaction than Mc Ewan. Two of the families – the Foleys who are part of our main extended family and the Trotters who play a very small role in this book – have appeared in Coe’s previous novels and, indeed, he tells us in the afterword that the Foleys may well appear again in future works.

There are a few running themes in this book, in addition to the family one.There are seven key events, which are the individual chapters, in that what happens in the chapters happens around these events. Four of them directly concern the British royal family and while the other three do not, the royal family plays a minor role in each one. Perhaps Coe should have waited for the key royal family event of this century – the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the accession to the throne of her son King Charles III.

While Coe’s characters do, to a great extent, celebrate, revere and even love the royal family (Mary’s husband Geoffrey only shows real grief not at the death of his parents but only at the death of Princess Diana), we also see dissenting voices. King George VI is mocked for his stammer when giving his speech on VE day while, later on, we meet, briefly, various people opposed to the monarchy. However, for Coe it seems, with a certain amount of justification whatever your views on the monarchy, that key events in British (or, perhaps more accurately, English history) have often involved the monarchy.

Another theme is racism. The book focusses on the English as our extended family is mainly English. However there are two other nationalities that play a role. The first is Germany. While the VE Day celebrations in this book barely touch on the Germans – the Japanese get as much mention – one German does play a role in the celebrations. He is Carl Schmidt, born German but naturalised British. Unlike other Germans (the royal family, for example) he has not anglicised his name (e.g. to Charles Smith) but kept his German name. If he has problems with it during the war, we do not hear about them. However he does have problems with it on VE Day when a local thug, on hearing his name and accent, attacks him with a bottle.

It will be another twenty-one years before the next Anglo-German episode occurs. Mary has married Geoffrey, Carl’s grandson, and they have three boys. Their German cousins visit England for the first time that we know of, to attend the World Cup in 1966, played in England. The Germans are confident that Germany will win, the English less confident that England will win. However there are clashes between the two sets of cousins not only over football but over the relative quality of their national chocolate and over the war, resulting in a fight.

The other nationality that plays a role is the Welsh. The families visit Wales for a holiday and two of the cousins – Peter Lamb and David Foley – become friendly with Sioned, daughter of the owner of the farm where they are staying. That too ends badly when Sioned shows her bitterness (and that of her family) regarding the English treatment of the Welsh including the Investiture of the Prince of Wales and flooding Welsh villages for a reservoir for water for England. Welsh nationalism will appear again.

There are other examples of racism such as Geoffrey complaining that there are too many coloureds on the streets of London, racism towards various nationalities at the World Cup, Irish jokes and Geoffrey’s reaction to one of his sons having a black girlfriend.

A further theme is the change in technology. The King’s speech on VE Day is listened to on the radio but subsequent events are watched on TV and the TVs of course improve over the years. It is the very conservative (and Conservative) Geoffrey who is surprisingly most interested in technology, for example having a personal computer before his sons.

There are two sub-themes, sub in that they only appear later in the book. The first is the UK’s relationship with the EEC/EU, which is not always positive as we know. The second is related to the EEC/EU and is the rise of a journalist who made his name writing about the EU, Boris Johnson. Coe wittily says in the afterword As for the tousled-haired ‘Boris’ who first appears in the Brussels section, even though he might, of course, seem familiar to some readers, whether he’s a fictional character or not remains hard to determine with any certainty. Perhaps fortunately, Coe finished this book well before the defenestration of Johnson and the appearance of the much worse Liz Truss.

Plot? Yes there is a sort of a plot and it involves our extended family. Mary is the star and we follow her from her witnessing the attack on Carl Schmidt up to almost the present day and the covid pandemic. She is dynamic, sensible, well-loved and a good mother and fairly good wife with a difficult husband. She nearly does not marry Geoffrey but does do so. They have three very different boys: Jack who is right-wing and full of himself, Martin unsure of himself, who works for Cadbury’s and is involved with the EU (another sub-theme is how the EU does not consider British chocolate to be real chocolate) and Peter, a professional violinist and the more sensitive of the three. Lorna, Martin’s daughter, is also a musician. David Foley, their cousin plays a role later in the book.

Coe seems to be saying that, on the one hand, tradition has won again. And so it will always be. England doesn’t change. but, on the other, it does change, led by changes in technology, changes in social mores, more acceptance of other races, the EU and, finally, major events like covid. Indeed, he concludes Everything changes, and everything stays the same, which I can more or less agree with. This is certainly a most worthwhile state of the nation book.

Publishing history

First published in 2022 by Viking