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Home Uncategorized Rotters in Brexitland

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…

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