“People ask me,” said writer Jonathan Coe last night at a Guardian event looking back on his masterpiece, “why don’t you write another What a Carve Up!? It’s all still so relevant. But that’s exactly why I’m not going to write another one.”
What a Carve Up! did to the 1980s in literature what Wall Street did in film. Constructed around the fictional Winshaw family, who between them represented all that was corrupting modern Britain, it was a novel that summed up the decade. Coe recalled how, when he was writing it in the early 1990s, he went to the British Library and drew up a “menu”—a kind of shopping list of iniquity—for the areas he want to satirise: “Politics, culture, finance, arms dealing, media, and food production.”
This list culminated in a cast of characters that seem as relevant today as when they were written, and, in some cases, more so. Coe joked that Mark Winshaw, who surreptitiously sells weapons to Saddam Hussein, was the character that perhaps brought him closest to libel. At least in the novel Mark’s arms trading had to be kept secret. Now he probably would have been part of the delegation of arms dealers that accompanied David Cameron to the Middle East in February as Egypt erupted.
Thomas Winshaw represents perhaps the best-remembered feature of the 1980s: the explosion in the banking industry. His profession seemed offensive when the book was written, but today’s vast bills for government bailouts have added financial complaint to moral outrage. Coe said that when he had aspects of Thomas read back to him, he was struck by the character’s pertinence. Meanwhile Henry Winshaw, the ignorant and aggressive politician who is shown the profitable potential of a privatised NHS by his uncle, would surely approve of health services being handed out to “any willing provider.”
This lasting relevance was in part intentional. Coe described the book’s conclusion (spoiler alert) as a “political parable about the indestructibility of Winshawism, or Thatcherism.” The distinction is an interesting one. Recent historical work on Thatcher, notably Richard Vinen’s Thatcher’s Britain, emphasises that the Iron Lady was of her time, and rejects the continual use of her as a catch-all description of a certain kind of politics or society.…