Tag Archives: Brexit

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.  

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Autumn: Ali Smith

“It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. Again. That’s the thing about things. They fall apart, always have, always will, it’s in their nature.”

Ali Smith’s Autumn, a state-of -the-nation novel, looks at Britain after the EU referendum. This is a turbulent, ugly world of bitterly divided opinions, library closures, cuts in university spending, and overwhelming student debt. The novel goes back and forth between the past and the present, and all this is seen through the eyes of Elisabeth and her relationship with the elderly Daniel Gluck.

autumn

The novel opens with Daniel Gluck, now 101 years old, sleeping and dreaming in a care home. In his dream, Daniel, washes up on a sandy shore, and once again has a young body that cooperates, runs, and gives joy in its pure ability.  At the same time, even in this dream state, Daniel is conscious that his body is aged and rotting.

The novel’s next sequence takes us to Elisabeth who is reading, appropriately, Huxley’s Brave New World as she waits in line at the Post Office to apply for a new passport.  There’s the sense that time grinds down to this slow, tap-dripping pace as Elisabeth pulls a distressingly high number from the ticket machine, waits and waits…. shifting uneasily on a seat on which one movement makes another customer sitting next to her “jerk[ed] into the air.”

Elisabeth Demand-thirty two years old, no-fixed-hours casual contract junior lecturer at a university in London, living the dream, her mother says, and she is, if the dream means having no job security and almost everything being too expensive to do and that you’re still in the same rented flat you had when you were a student over a decade ago. 

The post office episode has to be the best portrayal of the mind-numbing, surreal experience of dealing with government bureaucracy.

I just have to make it clear to you first up before we check anything, he says, that if I go ahead now and check your Check and Send form today it’ll cost you £9.75. I mean £9.75 today. And if by chance something isn’t correct in it today, it’ll still cost you £9.75 today, and you’ll need to pay me that money anyway even if we can’t send it off because of whatever incorrect thing. 

Right, Elisabeth says. 

But. Having said that, the man says. If something’s not correct and you pay £9.75 today, which you have to do, and you correct the thing that’s not correct and bring it back here within one month, provided you can show your receipt, then you won’t be charged another £9.75. However. If you bring it back after one month, or without a receipt, you’ll be charged another £9.75 for another Check and Send service.

Got it, Elisabeth says.

Are you sure you still want to go ahead with today’s Check and Send? the man says.

Uh huh, Elisabeth says. 

Could you say the word yes, rather than just make that vaguely affirmative sound you’re making, please, the man says.

Of course, Elisabeth’s passport application is rejected, as we knew it would be. A tape measurement concludes that her face is the ‘wrong size.’ In spite of the negative experience at the post office, author Ali Smith does not dehumanise the post office worker, for Elisabeth sees “despair” in his eyes. This flesh and blood man has been turned into someone who spends his days spewing out regulations he can recite by heart.

This wonderful novel goes back and forth in time to specific moments in Elisabeth’s life–moments she shared with Daniel. They met in 1993 when Elisabeth was 8 and Daniel was already elderly.  Elisabeth’s mother, a nice woman, who’s obsessed with an antiques television programme, at one point bars the child Elisabeth from spending time with Daniel, but Elisabeth disobeys her mother, and over time, Daniel introduces Elisabeth to the world of Art. This formative, important relationship between Elisabeth and Daniel leads Elisabeth to a discovery of the artist, Pauline Boty.  This also leads to threads concerning Christine Keeler and the scandal that rocked the nation. Now many decades on, the episode seems like an aside for the history books.

Time is under examination here, as well as the fleeting nature of life. We are all subject to the time in which we live: war, revolutions, and Brexit votes. Our lives are shaped by the times in which we live, and some things are beyond our control. Autumn argues that time never stands still, everything erodes and fades. We should value what we have while we can. In Elisabeth’s case, she has clung to art.

We have to hope, Daniel was saying, that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end not much else matters. 

Author Ali Smith’s Autumn, which is partly experimental, is one of a planned quartet of novels, and I’ll be reading the others.

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