Thursday, February 14, 2019

My Liberator review of Jonathan Coe's Middle England

Having disposed of Lord Bonkers, I can post my review article on Jonathan Coe'e Midland England from the current Liberator.

These two photographs of Bridgnorth appear with it in the magazine, albeit it in black and white.

Middle England
Jonathan Coe
Viking, 2018, £16.99

I was taking a short holiday at the Prince Rupert Hotel in Shrewsbury and planning my days out – Ludlow or Much Wenlock? Ironbridge or Bishop’s Castle? – when the August 2011 riots broke out. The news of arson, looting and murder in London, Birmingham and Leicester came from a completely different country, but it is a country we are all living in today.

Perhaps the feeling that the times are out of joint and the certainties you grew up with no longer apply is an inevitable accompaniment of growing older, but English society and English politics have changed to an extraordinary degree in the last 10 years. It is that change and that sense of middle-aged disconnection that are the subject of Jonathan Coe’s new novel.

Middle England is the slightly unexpected sequel to The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle, and deals with the struggles of some of the cast of those novels living through the run up to and aftermath of the referendum on British membership of the European Union. The action of the novel takes place between April 2010 and September 2018, and I can be so precise because the action dated to a month and year throughout.

It finds Benjamin Trotter, the unheroic hero of the trilogy, living in a converted mill house on the banks of the Severn north of Shrewsbury. The towns and villages he passes through on the drive to or from his widowed father’s house – Bridgnorth, Alveley, Quatt, Much Wenlock and Cressage – are an incantation that runs through the book.

Coe means business here, which threatened to be disappointing to someone who enjoys his more fantastic register, as displayed most famously in What A Carve Up!, but Middle England is a funny book as well as a serious one.  Here is the Conservative spin doctor Nigel, a new character introduced in this book, who is presented throughout as a laidback admirer of Cameron. Until:
“Cameron,” said Nigel, his face twisting. “What a twat. What a grade-one, first-class, copper-bottomed arsehole. Sitting in his fucking shed writing his memoirs. Look at the mess he’s left behind. Everyone at each other’s throats. Foreigners being shouted at in the street. Being attacked on the bus and told to go back where they came from. Anyone who doesn’t toe the line being called traitors and enemies of the people. Cameron broke the country, Doug. He broke the country and ran away!”
Coe is fair to his characters – come to that, the paragraph above is entirely fair to David Cameron. So, while Benjamin’s father is not above the odd racist remark, his confusion when he finds that the Longbridge car factory is no longer there has the nobility of a Lear:
“Whatever happened to all that? It was bad enough when I was working here. Every man for himself, survival of the fittest, I’m all right Jack. That’s what was starting to take over. But now it’s even worse . . . fancy clothes and Prosecco bars and bloody . . . packets of salad. We’ve gone soft, that’s the problem. No wonder the rest of the world’s laughing at us.
It wasn’t laughing at us, of course, though it may be now.

What this episode does bring out is the way that support for Brexit was closely aligned with a distrust of the ethics and outward appearances of social liberalism. A review of the novel for Politics Means Politics by Chris Grey makes the same point, noting how, in the experience of many people, that liberalism too often consists in Them telling you what you cannot do:
In Middle England, this theme first appears when Sophie has to attend a speed awareness course … at which she meets one of the instructors, Ian, whom she subsequently marries. Amongst those attending, there is a palpable air of “righteous indignation” at being “picked on” so that the room “smelled of victimhood”.
In the middle of this national slide over the cliff came a bright spot: the 2012 London Olympics and their opening ceremony in particular. Thanks to Coe’s enthusiasm for dates, I can tell you it took place on Friday 27 July 2012.

The ceremony was as good as everyone said at the time, presenting a vision of Britain that was liberal, inclusive and true to its history. It was all the better for not trying to improve its audience, as the planners of the Millennium Dome had done under Blair. Then, one commentator suggested the Work Zone resembled nothing so much as a giant restart interview. Whatever that ceremony’s virtues, however, they have vanished without trace.

The closest parallel to this brief flourishing of a liberal Britain is the Festival of Britain in 1951. In a famous essay published a dozen years later, Michael Frayn wrote:
Festival Britain was the Britain of the radical middle-classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC. In short, the Herbivores, or gentle ruminants, who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.
And in making the Festival they earned the contempt of the Carnivores - the readers of the Daily Express; the Evelyn Waughs; the cast of the Directory of Directors - the members of the upper- and middle-classes who believe that if God had not wished them to prey on all smaller and weaker creatures without scruple he would not have made them as they are.
And the Carnivores soon had their revenge. By the autumn of 1951 their political wing, the Conservative Party, was back in power and Churchill ordered the Festival’s South Bank site to be cleared.

For Carnivores and Herbivores then, read Leave and Remain today. Perhaps Brexit has only brought into prominence a divide that has always been there, yet the impossibility of communication between political tribes and generations is one of the themes of Middle England and an urgent and important one at that. It is lent a sad irony by the way its characters’ lives are stuffed with phones, computers and all the technology for it they could ever need.

While Coe’s litany of Shropshire place names –  Bridgnorth, Alveley, Quatt, Much Wenlock and Cressage – chime with my August 2011 in the county, that month’s riots were not the first indication that the times were out of joint. I would now point to the patient queues I saw waiting to withdraw their savings from the local branch of Northern Rock during the 2007 Liberal Democrat Conference. Which suggests it is the credit crunch that lies at the root of our ills and that the vote for Brexit was only a symptom of the malady.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceThere will be other fictional takes on the extraordinary period through which we are living, but I doubt if many will combine seriousness of purpose with humour in the way that Coe does in Middle England. Sam Leith in the Guardian described it as “ great big Centrist Dad of a novel” and, to writers and reviewers of a certain age, that can be nothing but a compliment.

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