Category Archives: Coe Jonathan

Middle England: Jonathan Coe

Jonathan Coe’s Middle England moving from 2010 until 2018 is a state-of-the-nation novel. The lives of a handful of characters are set against a troubled Britain as the country moves towards (and through) Brexit. The main character here is Benjamin Trotter who also appeared in The Rotter’s Club and  The Closed Circle.. While this is a trilogy, Middle England can be read as a standalone novel. When  Middle England opens, Benjamin, now in his fifties, is attending his mother’s funeral. Benjamin is ‘retired’ after making a bundle from selling his London property. He’s moved to a converted watermill in Shropshire, where he lives alone trying to finish his novel. 

Middle England

The novel spans 8 years in Britain’s history: a short time considering all that has gone before, but what a momentous 8 years it’s been. Other main characters include Benjamin’s university lecturer niece, Sophie and her plebeian husband, driving instructor, Ian–a couple who find themselves on opposite sides of the Brexit divide. There’s also Benjamin’s sister Lois who now works in York while her neglected husband remains in Birmingham. Another character is one of Benjamin’s best friends, Doug Anderton, a journalist who writes political op-ed pieces. He appears at Benjamin’s home on the night of the funeral and opens the subject of the political landscape in Britain.  He notes that Britain is “at a crossroads, “ that there’s a large chunk of the population who are unhappy and resentful, and that the political future in Britain is “volatile.” Doug who’s left-wing and married to an embarrassingly wealthy woman feels he’s “just a spectator” who lives in a “cocoon” of privilege. 

I’m just a spectator. I live in a house in Chelsea worth millions.  My wife’s family own half of the Home Counties. I don’t know what I’m talking about. And it shows up in my writing. Of course it does.

This theme, of being out of touch with the undercurrents of British society, “the sense of simmering injustice,”  runs though the novel. While Doug grasps that politically, Britain is facing change, just what that change will be seems to catch everyone (the politicians especially) off guard. The political scene is presented as it occurs: against the backdrop of life, so we see a timeline of events: the murder of Jo Cox on the news, the rumble of net migration figures. Benjamin, his sister, his niece and his friends are not comfortable with the shifting ‘face’ of Britain. They are upperclass/uppermiddle class. The working class make a slim showing here, and subjects such as Disability Living Allowance and fit-to-work tests are not given a mention–although the Leave promise to send 350,000,000 pounds weekly to the NHS does appear. 

As a novel, Middle England is flawed. The author’s political bias is evident, and while I don’t know quite how you escape that trapdoor when you tackle a subject such as this in a novel, the pro-leave characters are portrayed as rather ignorant repulsive people; the remainers seem stunned and confused (no doubt realistically) by what’s afoot and characters are rather conveniently slotted into “incidents.” The novel is at its strongest (IMO) when characters face an epiphany: such as when Sophie finds herself defending political correctness, publicly, over her husband’s crushed ambitions. This rather interesting scenario is spoiled when later Sophie becomes entangled in an incident involving a transgender student. Would, anyone, after all that is happened, visit the student in hospital? Sophie’s words have already been horrible misinterpreted and twisted once. So that brings me to another question: is the visit logical or does it say something about Sophie’s need to prove that she wasn’t all the things she was accused of.

Middle England is an ambitious novel which attempts to catch the mood of a country as radical changes take place. The novel doesn’t try to present a cogent discussion about immigration or the Brexit decision. Instead it acts as a mirror for the times, and in that sense written from the perspective of characters who are rather privileged, I think it’s a job well done. I watched Brexit from afar. I thought it would happen and it did; I have relatives who live in Britain, Australia, NZ, and Europe, and the latter who left (mainly) due to dissatisfaction with the UK, now are nervous about their future. By taking major political events in a timeline sort-of-way and placing this timeline in the lives of the characters, the novel goes a long way to explaining the mood of residents and an argument for why the Brexit vote passed. In spite of its flaws, I liked the book, and here’s Lisa’s review.

I find myself thinking a lot about the characters who voted to stay in Brexit, who then feel so uncomfortable in their home country that they leave. So on both sides of the Brexit divide, people don’t like what Britain has become. That’s a lot to think about. Finally, loved the Hobbit references which burrowed into the whole Middle Earth/Middle England idea, and the way the Olympics seemed to tap some deep core of patriotism.  

Review Copy

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The Winshaw Legacy by Jonathan Coe

“Let me give you a warning about my family,” he said eventually, “in case you hadn’t worked it out already. They’re the meanest. greediest, cruelest bunch of back-stabbing bastards who ever crawled across the face of the earth. And I include my own offspring in that statement.”

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of Jonathan Coe novels: The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim and Expo 58. While I liked both books, neither of them hit me as ‘best-of-year’ reads, but that all changes with the novel The Winshaw Legacy which has to be one of the cleverest, most unusual books I’ve read in some time. The Winshaw Legacy was a group read suggested by Séamus (Vapour Trails) with fellow participants Jacqui (Jacquiwine’s Journal),  and Kim (Reading Matters), and just in  case you are wondering if we read the same book, the UK title is What a Carve Up. How on earth do these two titles connect? What a Carve Up is a very real film watched as a child by Coe’s central character and sometime narrator, Michael Owen. It’s a film which has a profound impact on Michael’s life, and if you’ve seen it (I have a copy) you know that it’s a weak version of the Carry-On films and features those ever-popular Carry On team actors and characters who appear, briefly, in the book: Sid James and Kenneth Connor.

The premise of the film What a Carve Up concerns the reading of a will in ghastly, remote country mansion, and as the relatives gather and stay overnight, they are gradually murdered. What a Carve Up haunts Michael for inexplicable reasons and his obsession with the hints of sex in the film don’t seem to adequately explain his profoundly disturbing inability to move on from a scene involving Shirley Eaton and Kenneth Connor.

winshaw legacyThe Winshaw Legacy is a complex novel and a great deal of the central mystery of the book focuses on the revolting Winshaw family–a horrible lot of grasping self-styled aristos whose sycophantic links to the rise and reign of Margaret Thatcher reflect the worst of British society of the 70s and 80s, and it’s here we get into the novel’s complexities. The title What a Carve Up could refer to the carve up of the British socialist state: the demise of the Labour Party and the rise of Conservatives. Or perhaps it refers to our hapless hero, Michael’s obsession with the film he saw as a child. But then again What a Carve up could refer to some of the strange life-mirrors-art antics that occurred inside Winshaw Towers in 1961–a night that ended in the death of one man and the re-institution of Tabitha Winshaw, declared insane, but who may very well be the only sane member of the Winshaw family.

There are three essential mysteries at the heart of this novel:

  • Is there any truth in Tabitha (known as Mad Tab) Winshaw’s accusation that her brother Lawrence is to blame for the death of Godfrey Winshaw, a pilot shot down over Germany during WWII?
  • What really happened in 1961 when a burglar broke into Winshaw Towers and was killed by Lawrence?
  • What is Michael Owen’s role in all this? And why has he been paid a ridiculous amount of money by a vanity press to write a history of the Winshaw family?

The Winshaws have their dirty fingers in every pie during the sprawling period covered by the Great Carve Up: banking, arms dealing, privatization of the NHS, politics, pension plundering and even factory farming; they leave no avenue of possible wealth and asset stripping unmined:

When the Conservative government announced that they were abolishing free eye tests on the NHS in April 1988, Thomas phoned his brother Henry to tell him that they were making a big mistake: there would be a public outcry. Henry told him that he was over-reacting. There would be a whimper of protest from the usual quarters, he said, and then it would all quietly die down.

‘And I was right, wasn’t I?’

‘I should have bowed down to you political judgement, as always.’

‘Well, it’s quite simple really.’ Henry leaned forward and threw another log on the fire. It was a cold, dark afternoon in early October 1989, and they were enjoying tea and muffins in one of the Heartland Club’s private rooms. ‘The trick is to keep doing outrageous things. There’s no point in passing some scandalous piece of legislation and then giving everyone time to get worked up about it. You have to get right in there and top it with something even worse, before the public have had a chance to work out what’s hit them. The thing about the British conscience, you see, is that it really has no more capacity than … a primitive home computer, if you like. It can only hold two or three things in its memory at a time.

So while What a Carve Up is an appropriate title for the book, The Winshaw Legacy is equally appropriate. This is a book that is impossible to narrow down to just a few sentences. On one hand it’s the story of a writer who struggles with unknown and unrecognized demons and whose life is influenced by factors he’s unaware of, but it’s also about the Carve Up of Britain, the rise of Thatcher, the links between bankers (which Coe reminds us rhymes with wankers), politicians, financiers, arms dealers, chemical weapons manufacturers and the Saddam Husseins of this world. This is an intense complex book which even manages to weave in the  execution of Farzad Bazoft. Here’s a private discussion between Henry and Thomas Winshaw:

‘I know Major hasn’t been in the job for long and we’re all a bit worried that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s playing at. But take it from me–he’s a good boy. He does what he’s told. He took a sip of tea. ‘And besides he might be moving again soon.’

‘What, already?’

‘It looks that way. Margaret and Nigel seem to be heading for a final bust-up. We suspect there’ll be a vacancy at number Eleven pretty soon.’

Thomas tucked this information away at the back of his mind for future reference. It had considerable implications, which he would need to contemplate and examine at his leisure.

‘Do you think they’ll hang him?” he asked suddenly.

Henry shrugged. ‘Well he was a rotten chancellor, it has to be said, but that would be a bit drastic.’

‘No, no not Lawson. I mean this journo character. Bazoft.’

‘Oh, him. I dare say they will, yes. That’s what happens if you’re silly enough to get caught snooping around Saddam’s arms factories, I suppose.’

‘Making trouble.’

‘Exactly.’ Henry stared into space for a moment. ‘I must say, there are one or two snoopers over here that I wouldn’t mind seeing strung up on Ludgate Hill, if it came to that.’

‘Nosey parkers.’

While the book is the history of one of Britain’s most horrible, most powerful families, it would be wrong to say that this is only a political novel; it’s not. It’s an extremely witty social satire with multiple story threads (which all connect by the novel’s conclusion) that include voyeurism, the nepotism of the art world, and the vagaries of vanity publishing. These threads unfold from the 40s through the 90s through various voices–including author Michael Owen, and the diaries of Henry Winshaw. But also mention must be made of the fantastic cast of characters: chocolate addicted, Shirley Eaton fixated, reclusive author Michael Owen who’d “gone a bit strange,” his childhood friend, the uncomplicated yet board-game aficionado Joan, sweet Fiona–yet another victim of the long grasping fingers of the Winshaws, artist/nurse Phoebe who learned the hard, humiliating way just how unscrupulous the Winshaws could be, and dapper, geriatric sex-obsessed detective Findlay Onyx.  Author Jonathan Coe also manages to bring in, repeatedly, the idea that fiction mirrors life. At a few salient points, Michael’s life takes on a surreal quality as he imagines himself in a film or on the other end of a screen.

It was as if cracks had started to appear in the screen and this awful reality was leaking out: or as if the glass barrier itself had magically turned to liquid and without knowing it I had slipped across the divide, like a dreaming Orpheus.

All my life I’d been trying to find my way to the other side of the screen: ever since my visit to the cinema in Weston-super-Mare. Did this mean that I’d made it at last?

Since Michael’s conscious life as a child awoke with a film which included the reading of a will at an old manor house, Coe’s metafictional story comes full circle when Michael finds himself reliving scenes from the film What a Carve Up. The scenes of the loathsome, exploitive Winshaws are shockingly brilliant, savagely funny and yet also sadly reflect a secret fictional history in which the Winshaws assume the identify of the monstrous powerbrokers who carved up the nation. Michael Owen is the stunned Everyman who must emerge from his reclusive state and confront a new corrupt reality.

For Jacqui’s review 

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Expo 58 by Jonathan Coe

It’s just that you must understand–this knees-up in Brussels, well, it’s a wonderful idea in principle of course, but there are dangers involved.”

Early on in Jonathan Coe’s novel Expo 58, we are told that our main character, married bureaucrat Thomas Foley bears a striking resemblance to both Gary Cooper and Dirk Bogarde. This isn’t the only time in the novel that the resemblances are mentioned, and it’s fairly easy to imagine that Thomas is a romantic hero here, but in reality Thomas isn’t a hero at all; he’s a civil servant swept up into Coe’s comic spy caper, and while Thomas goes off the rails for a period, he’s largely oblivious to the significance of the events taking place right under his nose.

expo 58Thirty-two year-old Thomas Foley has worked, since 1944, in the Ministry of Information, now called the COI. He’s a junior copywriter and a great deal of his job is spent “drafting pamphlets on public health and safety, advising pedestrians of the best way to cross the road and cold-sufferers of the best way to avoid spreading germs in public places.” Depending on his mood, some days he thinks he’s done well in life but “other days he found his work tedious and contemptible.”

Little does Thomas suspect that life is all about to change, and not necessarily for the better. Expo 58 is scheduled to be held in Belgium and the COI has “overall responsibility for the content of the British pavilion at Expo 58 and this had immediately led to a frenzy of headscratching and soul-searching around that maddening, elusive topic of ‘Britishness’. What did it mean to be British in 1958? Nobody seemed to know. Britain was steeped in tradition, everybody agreed on that: its traditions, its pageantry, its ceremony were admired and envied all over the world. At the same time, it was mired in the past, scared of innovation, riddled with archaic class distinctions, in thrall to a secretive and untouchable Establishment. Which way were you supposed to look when defining Britishness? Forwards or backwards.”

The COI is faced with a “conundrum” when it comes to organizing the content of the British pavilion. Everyone knows that both the Americans and Soviets “were bound to produce national displays on a massive scale,” so the dilemma centres on the image Britain wants to project.  Amongst a lot of muttering about the “bloody Belgians,” one firm idea emerges: there must be an authentic pub, and so it’s agreed to build a British pub next to the British pavilion. This is where Thomas comes into the picture. Thomas’s father ran a pub, and was married to a Belgian woman. Thomas’s  boss decides that Thomas, with all that ‘experience,’ is the perfect man for the job and that he should oversee the running of the pub at Expo 5–an establishment that will be called the Britannia and which will offer traditional British fare:

as British as bowler hats and fish and chips, representing the finest hospitality our nation can offer.” Mr Ellis shuddered. “Those poor Belgians. That’s what we’re giving them, is it? Bangers and mash and last week’s pork pie, all washed down with a pint of lukewarm bitter. It’s enough to make you want to emigrate.”

If that sort of ribbing about British traditions appeals to you, then there’s a good chance that you will enjoy this mostly good-humoured book which is laced with just a twinge of bittersweet regret. The book captures beautifully the nuances and attitudes of the time. The 60s have yet to arrive and Britain has emerged from WWII, the emphasis remains on tradition–not change, and meanwhile the menace of rock & roll and the cold war colours all official attitudes.

So Thomas is put in charge of the pub at Expo 58, and his new position means that he will have to stay there for approximately 6 months. Since he has a wife and a young baby, he’s given the option of taking them along, but Thomas decides to leave them at home, and it’s a decision that illustrates Thomas’s desire for freedom and change. Thomas’s personal life becomes mixed up with skullduggery and some rather exotic characters at Expo 58, including  the fascinatingly assertive American actress, Emily, Belgian hostess Annecke, and a member of the Soviet delegation, Mr Chersky–a man who develops a passion for British crisps. Meanwhile, Thomas’s wife Sylvia, resentful that she’s been left alone while her husband is off partying in Belgium, encourages a relationship with a neighbor who’s only too happy to step into Thomas’s place.

The novel’s emphasis, especially initially, is on humour. There’s one scene, back in London, still at the planning stages of Expo 58 when the discussion of a display which covers “A history of the British water closet,” is shot down by COI officials. An argument then rages concerning the fact that  “Britain’s contribution to the disposal of human waste has never been recognized,” and that we all do “number twos,” even the queen. Definite Carry On material here, but most of the humour directed at fussy establishment tastes and what it ‘means’ to be British is much subtler. Then there’s two spy chappies from MI6, Radford & Wayne, who reminded me of Tin Tin’s Thompson & Thompson,  sniffing around Thomas trying to vet whether or not he’s a commie:

“Ah yes. The classics. Nothing like a bit of classical music, is there? I expect you like Tchaikovsky?”

“Of course. Who doesn’t?”

“What about the more modern bods? Stravinsky, say?”

“Oh yes. First rate.”

“Shostakovich?”

“Haven’t heard much.”

“Prokofiev?”

Thomas nodded, without really knowing why. He couldn’t see where any of this was heading. The waitress brought their coffees and they all stirred in their sugar and took their first sips.

“Of course,” said Mr Radford, “a lot of chaps would rather read than listen to music.”

“Curl up with a good book,” agreed Mr Wayne.

“Do much reading?”

“A bit yes. Not as much as I should probably.”

“Read any Dostoevsky? Some people swear by him.”

“What about Tolstoy?”

“I’m rather parochial in my tastes. I like Dickens. I read Wodehouse, for a bit of light relief. Do you mind telling me what this is all about? You seem to be asking me an awful lot of questions about Russian writers and composers.”

But the British aren’t the only ones whose zest for their own culture reveals fusty archaic attitudes and prejudices; the Belgians have the bad taste to build a fake Belgian Congo exhibit for Expo 58 which involves the creation of an entire village and even importing Congo natives to man and ‘authenticate’ the display.  No bets accepted about how this ends up. Since Expo 58 is part spy novel spoof, a sly reference to that ultra smooth spy 007 creeps into a discussion between Thomas, Mr Wayne and Mr Radford.

“Well, Foley, it’s very good of you to come all the way out here to join us,” said Mr Wayne at last.

“I wasn’t aware,” said Thomas, “that I had any choice in the matter.”

“My dear fellow,” said Mr Radford, “whatever can you mean?”

“We thought Wilkins was bringing you out here.”

“He bundled me into a car and pointed a gun at me, yes.”

“A gun?”

At this, they both started to chortle.

“A gun! Dear me!”

“Poor old Wilkins!”

“Really, he is the end.”

“He’s the absolute limit.”

“Lives in a fantasy world, poor fellow.”

“Reads far too many of those books. You know the ones I mean.”

“I know the ones. What’s the author’s name?”

“Fleming.  Have you read them, Foley?”

“No, I can’t say that I have.”

“Having a terrible influence, you know … on the chaps who work in our department.”

“Pure fiction, of course. Gadding around the world …”

“Bumping people off without so much as a by your leave …”

“Sleeping with a different woman every night …”

This detail, it seemed, struck both of them as especially implausible.

“I mean, dash it all, Radford, when was the last time you did that?”

“Bump someone off, you mean?”

“No–sleep with a different woman.”

Expo 58 is a light, gently comic read–the story of an Everyman who steps out of his comfort zone into a dangerous world of spies, assassins and perhaps even a femme fatale. Coe’s novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a humorous novel which explores the issue of relationships in the age of the socialverse, and Expo 58, with a similar style of humour successfully spoofs British attitudes , ethnocentrism, & the Establishment in the cold war 50s. The quotes give a good sense of the novel’s tone, so if you find yourself smiling at the quotes, you’ll probably enjoy the novel.

Review copy.

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The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe

Here’s a link to my review at Mostly Fiction of The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe. I came across Coe’s name in a collection of short stories, and so I was interested to try a novel. I really liked this book but was disappointed in the ending, and I suspect I’m not the only one who feels this way. But I liked the novel enough to try another Coe at some point. Suggestions welcome.

The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim is a very modern novel, and by that I mean that it focuses on the meaning of relationships in the internet age. The novel’s protagonist, lonely, under-employed Max doesn’t really have a clue about relationships, and at one point he even creates a fictional internet identity in order to maintain a covert correspondence with his ex-wife. This is a novel that covers a number of big issues extremely well while still maintaining a lightly humorous tone. Those issues include relationships, loneliness, the changing face of Britain, privacy in the internet age, and outsourcing. As Max embarks on a trip to the Hebrides to promote toothbrushes, he finds himself questioning some key events from his past, and author Coe very cleverly weaves in the true story of Donald Crowhurst.  In isolation, Max begins to compare his road trip with Crowhurst’s fictional voyage around the world.  

I’m not going to write a full review, but I am including one of my favourite quotes:

I was now driving past the old Longbridge factory. Or rather, I was driving now past the gaping hole in the landscape where the old Longbridge factory used to be. It was a weird experience: when you revisit the landscapes of your past, you expect to see maybe a few cosmetic changes, the odd new building here or there, the occasional lick of paint, but this was something else; an entire complex of factory buildings which used to dominate the whole neighbourhood, stretching over many square miles, throbbing with the noise of working machinery, alive with the figures of thousands of working men and women entering and leaving the buildings–all gone. Flattened, obliterated. Meanwhile, a big billboard erected in the midst of these swatches of urban emptiness informed us that, before too long, a phoenix would be rising from the ashes : a “major new development” of “exclusive residential units” and “retail outlets,” a utopian community where the only things people ever have to concern themselves with were eating, sleeping and shopping; there was no need to work anymore, apparently, none of that tiresome stuff about clocking in at factory gates in order to do anything as vulgar as making things. Had we all lost our wits in the last few years? Had we forgotten that prosperity has to be based on something solid and tangible? Even to someone like me, who had done nothing more than skim the papers and the news Web sites over the last couple of weeks, it was pretty obvious we were getting it badly wrong, that knocking down factories to put up shops wasn’t turning out to be such a great idea, that it wasn’t sensible to build an entire society on foundations of air.

Special thanks to Tom for pointing me in the direction of this entertaining book.

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