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Rotters in Brexitland

Giles Newington

Middle England, by Jonathan Coe, Penguin Viking, 421 pp, £16.99, ISBN: 978-0241309469

Two-thirds of the way through Jonathan Coe’s latest novel, Middle England, one of the older characters drops dead, done in by the effort of sending off a postal vote for Leave in Britain’s 2016 EU referendum. This terminal electoral gesture is a fittingly futile one from an individual point of view, though it does add its tiny vote-sized increment to the legacy of paralysis and bewilderment that the other characters are still dealing with at the novel’s end.

As is his practice, Coe places this fictional death firmly in a real political context, having it occur on the same day as the murder by a far-right fanatic of Jo Cox, the Labour MP and Remain campaigner. (Indeed, the shocking news of the MP’s death distracts the family of the fictional character from what’s going on closer to home.) Both losses are thus attributable to the poisons stirred up by the referendum campaign, described in Middle England, quoting a tweet from the writer Robert Harris, as “the most depressing, divisive, duplicitous political event of my lifetime”.

Coe’s readers will have met some of the new novel’s characters before, in The Rotters’ Club (2001), a 1970s coming-of-age tale that was serialised on BBC TV, and its sequel, The Closed Circle (2004), set during the Blair years. This latest and most elegiac instalment of their stories takes them well into middle age, from the formation of the Cameron/Clegg coalition in 2010 through the years of austerity to the referendum campaign and beyond.

Incompatible and unsustainable views of England’s mourned and misunderstood past (for Coe clearly feels that Brexit is an English phenomenon) propel the novel’s conflicts, from the kitschily idyllic pastoral cover image onwards. The book’s title, too, has a slightly retro quality, for even the notion of “middle England” (defined in the Cambridge Dictionary as “middle-class people who live in England but not in London and who are considered to have traditional views about society and politics”) now sounds a little dated in the aftermath of a ballot that seems to have laid waste to anything resembling a middle ground.

Again central to the action are Benjamin Trotter and his sister, Lois (or Bent Rotter and Lowest Rotter, as they were known in their teens), and Benjamin’s old friends from his days at a minor public school in Birmingham, among them Doug Anderton, now a high-profile leftish newspaper columnist (with a weakness for rightish upper-class women), and publisher Philip Chase.

Lois, whose strong bond with her brother was forged in the aftermath of her fiancé’s death in the Birmingham pub bombings of the 1970s, is increasingly estranged from her husband, Chris, but remains close to their adult daughter, Sophie, an art historian whose relationship with driving-speed-awareness trainer Ian becomes a domestic battleground emblematic of the Brexit divisions in the country as a whole.

When Middle England opens, Benjamin, his marriage over and his obsessive relationship with lifelong love Cicely finally resolved, is living in contented solitude by the river Severn, more or less retired from his accountancy job and still tinkering with the gargantuan prose-with-music magnum opus he’s been working on for most of his adult life. (His friends later advise him to cut all the music and most of the words, which results in a slim but well-made novel that is unexpectedly longlisted for the Booker prize.)

Following the funeral of the Trotter matriarch, Sheila, Benjamin’s West Country house is the setting for a reunion of friends and family. The divorced Doug, who writes his newspaper columns from his sumptuous Chelsea home and suffers the disdain of his more radical daughter, the pungently named Coriander (to whom he is scared to admit his new romantic entanglement with a Tory MP), tells Benjamin of his time on the campaign trail with Gordon Brown and the sense of rage he has encountered among voters in the wake of the financial crisis. The prevailing mood of the gathering is nostalgic, and soon Benjamin is weeping along to the ancient folk song Adieu to Old England, by which he has become fascinated, listening sorrowfully to its lyrics about falling from privilege into poverty.

The focus then shifts to the academic Sophie and her superficially unlikely partner, Ian, who likes cars and golf and is a devoted son to his widowed mother, the malign Helena, a resident of the genteel village of Kernel Magna. Helena and Sophie circle each other, Sophie watching more or less without comment as Helena mistreats her attentive Lithuanian cleaner, Grete, and complains constantly about political correctness, insisting in particular that the only reason Ian has been passed over for promotion at work is because of positive discrimination in favour of his colleague Naheed.

The nature of Helena’s politics quickly becomes clear, and soon the grim spectre of Enoch Powell is invoked, Helena brusquely informing Sophie that Powell was “quite right, you know ‘Rivers of blood.’ He was the only one brave enough to say it.”

Sophie’s response to her mother-in-law’s open racism is, uncharacteristically, to be rendered speechless:

Sophie froze when she heard these words, and the platitudes died on her lips. The silence that opened up between her and Helena was fathomless now . . . Any reply she made to Helena at this moment – any reply that tried to give an honest sense of her own, differing      views – would immediately mean confronting the unspeakable truth: that Sophie (and everyone like her) and Helena (and everyone like her) might be living cheek-by-jowl in the same country, but they also lived in different universes, and these universes were separated by a wall, infinitely high, impermeable, a wall built out of fear and suspicion and even – perhaps – a little bit of those most English of all qualities, shame and embarrassment. Impossible to deal with any of this. The only practical thing was to ignore it (but for how long was that practical, in fact?) and to double down, for now, on the desperate, unconsoling fiction that all of this was just a minor difference of opinion, like not quite seeing eye-to-eye over a neighbour’s choice of colour scheme or the merits of a particular TV show.
And so they drove on without speaking, for ten minutes or more, until they reached King’s Heath, and were driving alongside Highbury Park and Sophie said, “The leaves are turning already,” and Helena answered, “I know. So pretty, but it seems to happen earlier every year, doesn’t it.”’

From this point on, Sophie’s marriage is under pressure, with the well-meaning but non-confrontational Ian struggling to stand up to his mother’s increasingly reprehensible and emboldened behaviour, especially towards the loyal Grete and her husband, Lukas. Upset by Helena, Ian also feels patronised by Sophie’s presumption of intellectual superiority and, during yet another dispute with her about political correctness, predicts that “Leave is going to win because of people like you.”

Ironically, it is Sophie who gets into PC trouble at work and on social media when a remark she makes to one of her transgender students is misinterpreted, not by the student herself but by the zealous and super-vigilant Coriander, who brings a complaint to the college authorities and unleashes a Twitter storm that leads to Sophie’s temporary suspension. Sophie’s (and Ian’s) lack of resentment about these disciplinary procedures is in contrast to Helena’s reflexive fury at anything she feels might prevent her airing her prejudices.

Coe’s strengths as a writer – his humour, his clarity, and particularly the deft way he provides a detailed political background – make him well-equipped to sustain a state-of-the-nation novel that is credible and wide-ranging but doesn’t get dragged down by the weightiness of its theme. Although some of his characters, especially the sympathetic ones, can seem a little staid or indistinct, this can work well in showing how society’s upheavals take their toll on them. There is a sense that they are all trapped in a snare made of systemic political failings but also of their own underlying sentimentality and nostalgia.

Undaunted by the shifting possibilities of the Brexit outcome or the number of media platforms constantly chewing up the material he is using in his fiction, Coe recently told The Guardian that he is “pretty much addicted” to Twitter at this stage and keeps it “buzzing away” when he is writing, as much to keep himself from feeling lonely as to stay informed. Although it’s clear that his sympathies are left-leaning and Remainer, he is no metropolitan elitist; his work is much less full of London-centric assumptions than that of many of his contemporaries. And despite having written reputedly the longest sentence in English literature (at the time) in The Rotters’ Club, he is not an experimental or difficult writer, his untrammelled style perhaps explaining why he has not often troubled the judges of the major literary awards.

From the start though, he has shown a gift for mixing righteous satirical anger with a light comic touch. His first success, and perhaps still his funniest and most satisfying novel, What A Carve Up (which did win an award, the 1994 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize), lined up his villainous Thatcherite creations, the aristocratic Winshaws, showed off their venal ways and then gratifyingly avenged all their misdeeds. His depiction of the destructive power that could be wielded by a single privileged family if allowed free, unregulated rein in the worlds of media, finance, politics, the arms trade and the art world is not only entertaining but also coherently grounded in the politics of the time. It is framed, too, in an irreverent cultural universe of a certain vintage – Hammer horror, Ealing comedies, Carry On films – where the grandiosity of the Winshaw family’s greed and disorderliness would inevitably be brought sharply to earth in the end.

The comedy battleground has shifted a lot since What A Carve Up however, and where the Winshaws would once have been mocked as upper-class exploiters, now their maverick ways might be taken as a sign of authenticity, an antidote to sleek, smooth, fake professional ways. Perhaps the truth is that the Winshaws are now in charge again.

In Middle England, Coe’s most serious satirical venom is reserved for the spin flunkey Nigel Ives, the incomprehensible “deputy assistant director of communications” to “Dave” (Cameron) before the referendum. In his regular cafe tête-a-têtes with the journalist Doug, the smug Nigel boasts about the joys of life around the coalition cabinet table: “The jokes, the laughs, the mickey-taking. Believe me, I’ve heard a lot of this kind of stuff, especially at uni, and we’re talking top banter here.” But Nigel’s complacency is destined soon to turn to bemusement and distress.

These depictions of government frivolity show that, despite the long-term forces which found expression in the referendum campaign, the result can also still be seen as a consequence of short-term political bungling and opportunism. Although the Brexit process sometimes now feels like endless, repetitive payback for the neglect of major problems in British society – inequality, austerity, the class system, racism, industrial decline, nationalism, post-imperial nostalgia, self-pitying national masochism, not to mention the EU’s own failings – and although a ballot that brought 17 million Leavers to the polls obviously must have had deep roots, it is also the outcome of simple recklessness, the rivalries of a small political class dovetailing with a host of historical elements just as they had coalesced into a perfect storm of discontent.

Coe’s selection of significant moments over the past decade is astute, including the 2011 riots and the moment in 2012 when everyone (except for Benjamin, who is home alone, listening to a string quartet) settles down in front of the TV to watch the opening ceremony of the London Olympics. This collective viewing is in itself a nostalgic event, harking back to the the three-channel days of the 1970s when millions of people shared the same cultural reference points. And as for Danny Boyle’s ceremony, so expertly (and ambiguously) does it press British buttons – royalty, NHS, James Bond, the industrial revolution, Windrush, even punk rock – that it manages to get most of the characters, young and old, patriotically misty-eyed. Yet what was seen primarily as an inventive celebration of British diversity could, depending on your vantage point, also be taken as an inward-looking display of self-regard, part of a self-conscious cultural kitschification that has been going on since at least the 1990s when socialism was recalibrated as New Labour, feminism as girl power, Swinging London as Cool Britannia, and so on, culminating in the present moment when Brexit is cast as something to do with the Dunkirk spirit.

These are disorientating rebrandings, expressive of much deeper changes, as when, in Middle England, Benjamin’s aged father, Colin, realises that the Longbridge Rover plant, where he spent his entire working life making cars, has been turned into a vast shopping centre. “Where do they make the cars then?” he asks in dismay, and then: “How can you replace a factory with shops?”

If there is something heartening about Middle England, it is the attention Coe pays to political processes, implying a faith that if they can get us into this current mess, they can also get us out of it, that Britain, after a crisis of self-examination, can move forward more realistically. The more likely scenario though is that the forces unleashed by the referendum will make its aftermath even more hazardous than what brought it about. In view of the spike in Irish passport applications in the past couple of years, it’s significant that several of Middle England’s main characters are headed, by novel’s end, for new lives in Europe. The more generous-spirited Britain they thought they were living in has jolted off in a different direction, leaving them deeply pessimistic about its future. This is a feeling articulated by Benjamin’s friend, the children’s entertainer Charlie, in the book’s closing pages, when he gives the left’s version of recent history, one that shows its own brand of nostalgia too:

The way I see it, everything changed in Britain in May 1979 [when Margaret Thatcher was elected prime minister]. Forty years on, we’re still dealing with that. You see – me and Benjamin, we’re children of the seventies. We may have only been kids then, but that was the world we grew up in. Welfare state, NHS. Everything that was put in place after the war. Well, all that’s been unravelling since ’79. It’s still being unravelled. That’s the real story. I don’t know if Brexit’s a symptom of that, or just a distraction. But the process is pretty much complete now. It’ll all be gone soon.

The sane, lucid tone of Coe’s very readable and enjoyable novel may not be in tune with the times, but by convincingly putting the Brexit pressure on his mainly likeable characters, and letting its issues work through them, he may in future be seen to have shown that fiction can provide an even fuller picture of what’s going on now than the wealth of super-charged journalism, comment and opinion that some of us are currently addicted to.

1/2/2019

Giles Newington is a freelance journalist.

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