Jonathan Coe: The Rotters’ Club
Another fine book from Jonathan Coe explores growing up in Birmingham in the 1970/1980s. Let’s get the title out of the way. It has a double meaning. The first refers to a record by the legendary but essentially unknown English band Hatfield and the North which plays a relatively small role in the story. The second refers to the main characters. These include the three offspring of Colin Trotter, British Leyland personnel man. The two oldest children are called Ben (jamin) and Lois and are therefore known, at school, as Bent Rotter and Lowest Rotter. They wear this as a badge of pride and create the Rotters’ Club.
Most of the story revolves around Benjamin, a musician and writer, who is in love with the unattainable Cicely and who, of course, finally wins her. We follow his career at school – the fictitious King William’s School, Birmingham, but clearly based on King Edward’s School in the same city, which Coe himself attended, and we follow the career of his peers and family. He is involved with the somewhat iconoclastic school magazine, an unsuccessful rock band and, of course, sex. His younger brother is more flamboyant than he is. His sister Lois has a boyfriend she found in a personal ad and who is killed by an IRA bomb just as he is about to propose to her (she survives with both physical and emotional scars).
As in his other novels, this one has a clearly political flavour, centred around the problems at the car factory, British Leyland. Benjamin’s father is a personnel officer there. One of Benjamin’s close friends is Doug, whose father is a union steward there. Not only do we follow labour relations at British Leyland but we follow them elsewhere, particularly the Grunwick strike (where Doug’s father is injured). The Irish issue is also to the fore, and not just with the bombing of the pub where Lois’ boyfriend is killed. Indeed, racism is a key part of the story. The only black pupil at the school – Steve Richards – is initially a victim of racism and called Rastus by the other pupils. He is gradually more accepted by most but, significantly, not all the pupils, and his running battle with a fellow white student clearly has strong racist elements.
Coe is also very funny, as in his other books. He recounts with glee the activities of Harding, the school prankster, who plays tricks on all and sundry, culminating in the comatose goat placed in the back seat of the racist’s car. But, in particular, Coe tells an excellent story of the tribulations of growing up and how this might look in retrospect and how, whether we like it or not, we are linked in ways that we cannot imagine or predict.
First published 2001 by Viking