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Jonathan Coe: Middle England

Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy) is, in my view, his best book and, along with J G Ballard‘s Running Wild, the best anti-Thatcher novel. Coe certainly has not avoided politics since. His novel Number 11, his most recent novel prior to this one, if we exclude the Broken Mirror, a political parable for children, a contemporary fairy tale for adults, and a fable for all ages, was certainly political but nowhere near as hard-hitting as What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). However, this novel, as the title sort of gives away, is back to the satire of the earlier book.

Two of Coe’s earlier books – The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle – concern Benjamin Trotter, his friends and family (and deal, of course, with political issues, the late 1970s in the first one and Blair in the second one). This book takes up the story of Trotter, his friends and family, and places them firmly in recent times (the book opens in 2010) while, at the same time, getting back to political satire and political commentary in a way that is as forceful as What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy).

Coe takes as his starting point that England (as the title tells us, it is very much England; apart from a nod to the Scottish independence referendum, the other UK countries barely get a look-in) is divided. There are three main ways that he shows the divide though they are all related. The first is the divide between the haves and the have-nots or, more particularly the metropolitan elite (a term Coe barely uses) and ordinary people (a term Coe does use). There is an incredible fault line running right through British society, Doug will later say, referring to the 2011 riots.

The second is the generation gap. Generation gaps have existed in, I would imagine, every country in the world since time immemorial. However, in this book, Coe emphasises the difference between what is now called the Generation Snowflake (a term Coe does not use; it refers to the younger generation who are considered more inclined to take offence) and the older, less politically correct generation. We see this particularly in the case of one of the characters who inadvertently offends a transgender woman, which results in a Twitterstorm against her (the alleged offender) and has repercussions for her career.

The third difference is between those who voted for Brexit and those who did not. The Brexiters are often in favour of what Coe calls Deep England (see also Merry England and Little England), i.e. those who hark back to an England that never really existed or, at least, only partially (cricket in the village green, the local pub). These people are usually opposed to immigration and immigrants. One of the older characters in this book has a Lithuanian cleaner, Grete, who is very helpful to her in ways beyond her cleaning duties, yet is clearly despised by the older woman. Racism (and homophobia, transphobia and similar ideas) are generally part of this. This divide clearly overlaps with the Generation Gap, with the younger people tending to favour Remain and the older tending to favour Brexit, and the older people being more racist, homophobic, etc.

Coe superbly brings all these differences into the book, showing them through his varied characters, satirising them in many ways. We have Brexiters and Remainers, old and young, and the metropolitan elite and a few (relatively few) ordinary people.

The plot follows Benjamin Trotter and his family. Benjamin had been in love with Cicely, lost her, regained her and lost her again. He claims that he does not care but is now living on his own in the country (having made a killing on his London property) and, amongst other things, writing his magnum opus which is about his life and, in particular, about his relationship with Cicely. It is far too long and even has a large musical accompaniment. He get helps cutting it back to a manageable, publishable form.

There is one other writer. He is Lionel Hampshire, who appeared in Coe’s story in Tales from a Master’s Notebook, who is viciously satirised. While not Martin Amis, he clearly has some of Amis in him. He is lazy, greedy, opportunistic and, apparently, not a very good writer.

We follow Trotter’s family, in particular Sophie, his niece, an art historian and lecturer, who is tired of intellectual men and who twice meets Lionel Hampshire, and Colin, his eighty-two year old father, whose wife, Benjamin’s mother, dies at the beginning of the book. We also follow his friends, including his old schoolfriend, Philip Chase, who has become a publisher and Doug, whose daughter Coriander (Corrie) becomes the representative of the snowflake generation in this novel.

While the plot drives the book, it is the political and social issues which make the novel so interesting. Doug, for example, is a journalist, and establishes a relationship with a young PR man, Nigel, in the office of David Cameron. Coe shows the shallowness of the Cameron administration, as Nigel weasels his way out of every trap Doug sets for him and, like his boss, shows him himself completely out of touch with the ordinary people. To be fair, most of the metropolitan elite seem to be out of touch, as the Brexit vote only too clearly showed.

Coe uses dates and the events associated with those dates throughout the book. The problem with that is while some of the events may well have ongoing importance – elections, Brexit vote – others, such as the death of Victoria Wood, the Rivers of Blood speech or the Gordon Brown-Gillian Duffy confrontation, will be meaningless to most non-English people and will be sinking into obscurity and irrelevance for many English people. Others have used this technique – famously John Dos Passos in his U.S.A. trilogy – so it can work. While Trump, Putin and Macron (but not Merkel) make an appearance, they are not in any way key to this book, which is focussed on English politics, even when talking about Brexit.

However, it all gets back to the divide. There is the sense of simmering injustice, the resentment towards a financial and political establishment which had ripped people off and got away with it, the quiet rage of a middle class which had grown used to comfort and prosperity and now saw those things slipping out of their reach. We even see it in song lyrics, as Benjamin listens to Shirley Collins. However, as one of his characters says, everything changed in Britain in May 1979, the month Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister.

Lionel Hampshire has a discussion with a French novelist and both writers agree that the British are moderate or a nation of harmless cranks, as someone else states. Without directly commenting on this, Coe skilfully shows that the famous British moderation is fast disappearing. Racism, riots, anti-immigration, Twitterstorms, political correctness (the new Fascism, one character comments)and English nationalism all contribute to its disappearance. Or is the idea of British moderation merely a part of Deep England, a nostalgia for an England that never really existed?

The novel was published in November 2018. Coe takes us up to September 2018, well into the Brexit negotiations but obviously before Brexit takes place. He avoids recent events concerning Brexit such as the Irish backstop issue and other tortuous discussions. He does not, however, ignore the fact that, in his view, it is a horror show. If there is a motto for this book it is the comment of Benjamin Trotter towards the end of the book – Fuck Brexit! However, we have already seen other negative effects, such as Grete getting attacked for speaking Lithuanian on her mobile phone and being called a Polish bitch, the nasty games of an Arron Banks figure, called Ronald Culpepper (whom Ben Trotter was at school with) and evidence of couples breaking up over Brexit.

The best comment comes from a politico: We’re fucked…We’re utterly and irredeemably fucked. It’s all chaos. Everyone’s running around like headless chickens. Nobody has the faintest idea what they’re doing. We’re so, so fucked…Everyone at each other’s throats. Foreigners being shouted at in the streets. Being attacked on the bus and told to go back where they came from. Anyone who doesn’t toe the line being called traitors and enemies of the people. I can only agree with this comment.

This is undoubtedly Coe’s best book since What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy). The stories of the characters we follow are well told, interesting and link into without being dominated by the political environment, including but certainly not limited to Brexit. There is no question that Coe has his finger on the pulse of what is going on in British or, rather, English politics, that he can skilfully integrate what is going on into his story and that he is a first-class satirist – the novel is very funny, indeed. Though it is certainly not just about Brexit, it will be dubbed a Brexit novel. If you are pro-Brexit, you may feel that Coe wears his heart too much on his sleeve. While he certainly is opposed to Brexit, he is also not averse to mocking Remainers and other member of the liberal metropolitan elite. Ultimately though, this is a Fuck Brexit! novel and all power to Coe for writing such a fine work.

Publishing history

First published 2018 by Viking