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Jonathan Coe: Number 11

When I first saw the title of this book and learned that it was something of an updating of Coe’s earlier and superb What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy), I thought it was going to be about 11 Downing Street, the official residence of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and, in particular, about the current incumbent, the Prince of Darkness, George Osborne. While it is in part, Number 11, actually, refers to a number of things that have that title in this book, including an ordinary private house, home of the Mad Bird Woman, a bus route in Birmingham, used by single mother, former singing star and reality show contestant, Val Doubleday, a storage locker in Germany which may or may not contain the only copy of a short film, probably called The Crystal Garden, the basement level in a house as well as, towards the end, 11 Downing Street.

Is it an updating of What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy)? Well, sort of. If you have read that novel, you will be aware that the UK title refers to two things. The first is the carving up of the UK by the Thatcherites. The second is an old-fashioned film comedy with that title. In this novel, one of the characters (who is dead by the time we get to know him but his widow tells his tale) is an aficionado of such films and one film in his collection is What a Whopper!, another double-entendre. (For non-Brits, What a whopper! can refer to something that is large but also to a falsehood. As this is about the Loch Ness Monster, it clearly refers to both. Indeed, one of the reasons for the man having this film in his collection is that he intends to write an article on the Loch Ness Monster in the cinema, something that has now been left to his widow.) The owner of the said film has notes on all his films and he says about What a Whopper!: 1962. Sequel to What a Carve Up! (1961)? Not really. Two of the same actors. *Sequels which are not really sequels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is oblique, slippery.

However, the key aspect of What a Carve Up! (US: The Winshaw Legacy) is a satirical attack on Thatcherism and its legacy. While this book certain is satirical and mocks many of the current political and cultural foibles of contemporary Britain, it is not as focused as its predecessor. The focus there was Thatcherism. Coe is not directly attacking Cameronism (is there such a thing?) Indeed, Cameron is not mentioned by name, though the Coalition government is. George Osborne is mentioned three times but, in all cases, in reference to his famous, satirical and wildly inaccurate statement We’re all in this together. (For those who do not know, Osborne is heir to a baronetcy and his father owns a very successful interior decorating company. He is not suffering from the recession.) Coe’s mockery is also far less savage than in the previous book. He mocks some easy targets – reality shows, right-wing journalists (based on the likes of the horrific Sarah Vine and the even more horrific Katie Hopkins), and right-wing newspaper editors (based on the foul-mouthed and foul Paul Dacre). However, much of the criticism is not in the form of satire but just showing what is wrong, in his view, with modern Britain, including forced labour of immigrants and general exploitation of immigrants, library closures, racism, demonisation of the poor, high energy costs, the ever-widening social and financial divide, celebrity culture, Facebook, food banks, sexism, rich people digging basements beneath their houses and buying houses not to live in but as an investment, tax avoidance, key drugs needed for cancer treatment available to the rich but not on the National Health, and Tony Blair. None of this is particularly original and none of this will be new to most Brits. (Though he does mock that aspect, as one of the reality show contestants, clearly selected only for her looks, has not heard of the coalition Government and was not aware that tides are controlled by the moon.) The US title of the previous book was The Winshaw Legacy, named after the eccentric family that symbolise the worst excesses of Thatcherism. They reappear in this book (the right-wing journalist and the newspaper editor) and are just as nasty. There is even a factual book written about them called, of course, The Winshaw Legacy, written by Michael Owen (the name of a former famous footballer in Britain.)

There is not really a consistent plot in this book. We follow, to a certain degree, one character, Rachel Wells. We first meet her when she is six and staying with her grandparents near Beverley near Hull, in East Yorkshire. But Rachel is as much a linking character as an important character in her own right. It is through her that we meet the Mad Bird Woman, Alison, the gay black woman with an artificial leg and daughter of the aforementioned singer, Val Doubleday, Laura, widow of the deceased film buff, Livia, the Romanian dog walker, the super-rich Gunns with their eleven basements, and Freddie Francis, the tax avoidance expert. It is these characters as much as Rachel who steer us down the paths Coe wishes to steer us. Indeed, Rachel, who ends up pretty much in almost the exactly the same place where she started, is something of a wishy-washy character and not terribly interesting. But then as she is only the eyes or, perhaps, the conscience of Coe and, by extension of us, the readers, she cannot really be much else.

There are two minor plot lines over and above those I have already mentioned. One is the mysterious death of David Kelly, the weapons expert who allegedly committed suicide at the time Blair was about to invade Iraq but around whose death there was a certain amount of suspicion and, as the link above shows, about whose death there are still unanswered questions. For Rachel, it was a major event for many reasons. For her grandfather, it was the day the Blair generation lost its innocence. The second plot strand does not really occur till near the end of the book and is introduced by Rachel in her notebook with the phrase the horror began. Indeed, the book at this point briefly veers into Hollywood-style sci-fi/horror which, depending on your point of view, is an ingenious twist by Coe or all rather silly. Frankly, I am going for the second option.

I seem to have damned this book but it is not all that bad. It is quite an enjoyable read, at least if you share Coe’s views on what is wrong with contemporary Britain as, to a certain extent, I do. It can be humorous and is well written and does expose the things that need exposing, even if a current reading of the British press will make you aware of most. There is an obvious comparison and that is John Lanchester‘s Capital. Capital was published three years ago but, at the period I am writing this review a slightly updated version of the book is being shown on BBC TV. Though the books are very different, they cover some of the same themes, namely mocking and exposing some of the worst aspects of contemporary Britain and, in particular, the behavior of the rich. Frankly I found the Lanchester book much more interesting, not least because he has a host of characters, some of them likeable, some of them not, who continue through the book. Coe’s characters come and go and there is not a single one, with the possible exception of Rachel Wells, who we can feel attached to, and even Rachel is, as I have said, a bit wishy-washy. Both make their point in a not very subtle way but Lanchester, I feel, tells the better story.

Publishing history

First published 2015 by Viking