An ambitious novel, Middle England is let down by its treatment of Brexit, says Ian Sansomby Ian Sansom / October 17, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Jonathan Coe writes big, bold state-of-the-nation novels that demand to be taken seriously. Coe’s new novel Middle England is being promoted by his publishers as “The novel for our strange new age,” though such a claim depends on what exactly you think a novel, any novel, about our strange new age should be like, and indeed whether or not our age is in fact either strange or new.
Coe’s books often interconnect: his underrated 2015 novel Number 11, for example, is a sort of non-sequel sequel to 1994’s What a Carve Up!, his great, genre-defying account of Thatcherism. Middle England is the third instalment of what one might call his King Edward’s novels—books that largely feature characters who, like Coe, attended King Edward’s school in Birmingham in the 1970s, which was at the time a mixed independent and grammar school. The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004) are parts one and two of what may eventually be regarded as the closest thing we have to a contemporary middle-class, middle-England Dance to the Music of Time.
Coe’s recurring central character, Benjamin Trotter, is living alone in a converted mill house on the banks of the River Severn, on the outskirts of Shrewsbury. Benjamin remains a sweet-natured soul, a writer and composer. (Interestingly, there are a lot more people in the novel, journalists, lecturers, writers or musicians, who live in converted mills or in Kensington than there are people doing what one might think of as actual middle-income jobs.) Benjamin has been working on his roman fleuve, “Unrest,” since he was at Oxford in the late 1970s. The book now consists of more than one and a half million words, complete with its own musical sound track: “Shapeless, sprawling, prolix, over-ambitious, misconceived, unpublishable, in parts unreadable and by and large unlistenable, the whole thing had started to lower over Benjamin like an oppressive cloud.”
Since Benjamin is a lot like Coe—the school, the music, the books—you’re not quite sure whether this is deliberately disarming, or if it’s Coe simply telling it like it is from his jaundiced authorial perspective. Don’t worry, Jonathan: Middle England may be shapeless, sprawling and prolix, but it doesn’t mean it’s over-ambitious, misconceived and unreadable. On the contrary. It’s a huge attempt at coming to terms with the incomprehensible—recent English history.
Coe’s fictional universe is hardly a simple one, so just to update everyone on the characters: Benjamin’s partner and long-term object of affection Cicely has gone to Australia; his mother Sheila has just died, alas, though dear old Colin, his dad, who used to work at Leyland’s Longbridge plant in Birmingham, is staggering on; Benjamin’s sister Lois is a librarian at the University of York and is married to a bloke called Chris who’s a personal injury lawyer; their daughter Sophie is an art historian whose thesis was on “pictorial representations of 19th-century European writers of black ancestry”; Benjamin’s dodgy New Labour MP brother Paul has buggered off to Tokyo; Ben’s best friend Philip Chase, founder of the doomed prog band Gandalf’s Pikestaff, is now running his own publishing business; Ben’s other great friend Doug Anderton has ascended to the highest ranks of the commentariat and lives in Chelsea with his wife Francesca and their daughter Coriander, who is a poor little rich girl Social Justice Warrior.
I could go on, but we’re talking Anthony Trollope-sized levels of interconnected complexity here. Nathaniel Hawthorne famously described Trollope’s Barsetshire novels “as if some giant had hewn a great lump out of the earth and put it under a glass case, with all its inhabitants going about their daily business,” which isn’t a bad description of Middle England.
In what amounts to a panoramic survey of the UK over the past seven or eight years we get the London riots of 2011, we get the 2012 Olympics, we get the murder of Jo Cox, we get Brexit, and we occasionally get things that most of us have probably forgotten all about, but which are probably worth remembering. One chapter begins: “Eight months later, on 7 April 2012, at the approach to Chiswick Pier on the River Thames, the Oxford-Cambridge boat race had to be temporarily halted when a man was spotted in the water swimming ahead of the boats. He was later identified as Trenton Oldfield, an Australian national and graduate of the London School of Economics who claimed that he had disrupted the race as ‘a protest against inequalities in British society, government cuts, reductions in civil liberties and a culture of elitism.’ The race was restarted half an hour later, and the Cambridge crew won by four and a quarter lengths.”
It’s a novel and it’s a Wikipedia entry.
And it’s quite brilliant too, in parts. Coe is a writer blessed with ambition, stamina, opinions, ideas, exquisite rhetorical and storytelling skills, and yet who also somehow displays no signs of the besetting sins of those usually possessed of such gifts—self-preening smug pretentiousness.
But let me raise one tiny concern about this amazing enterprise. And that tiny concern, alas, is about Brexit. (Sorry.)
Everyone who votes for Brexit in the novel—or who we are led to believe is probably a Brexit voter—is portrayed as either mildly or explicitly racist, and at least a little bit stupid. At the far extreme you’ve got someone like Peter Stopes, a minor character who believes that “the white races of Europe… were being subjected to a gradual genocide.” Then in the middle you’ve got someone like Derek, another minor character described as “a ruddy-faced, middle-aged man in a business suit with tousled white hair and a permanent air of barely suppressed contempt.” And then there’s Colin Trotter, familiar to readers from the other King Edward’s novels, who after the death of his wife is reduced to shuffling around his house, eating fried food, wearing patterned jumpers “of the sort favoured by golfing celebrities and daytime television presenters of the 1980s,” and spouting the sorts of opinions easily scorned by his right-on children. He’s pathetic.
Coe’s one attempt to portray a Brexit-type character with compassion—though that compassion runs out in the end—comes in the person of Ian. Sophie, the art historian, attends a Speed Awareness Course, where she meets and eventually marries her instructor, this Ian, who’s a bit of a geezer. We are invited to view him through Sophie’s eyes. Thus, when she realises that Ian owns a games console, this is her reaction: “She picked it up and turned it around in her hands, briefly curious about this bizarre object whose functions were so mysterious to her. None of her previous boyfriends, it occurred to her, had ever owned anything like it.” It’s not clear whether this is intended as a comment on Sophie being out of touch, or a signal that Ian represents a sort of Mr English Average. (He also owns the Jason Bourne films on DVD and reads the gadget magazine Stuff.) Knowing Coe’s work, which is usually careful rather than cruel, it’s probably intended as both.
“Right-on types are forever trying to
understand dreadful middle England people”
Ian displays great heroism during the 2011 riots; but he soon becomes disillusioned with his lot when an Asian colleague at work called Naheed is promoted above him, and he is eventually revealed as a thin-skinned, mean-spirited semi-racist prole. When Sophie and Ian go on a cruise, where Sophie is a guest lecturer, and she is confronted up-close with yet more people like Ian—vulgar non-PC individuals who use sweetener in their coffee and don’t care much for her lectures on the Treasures of the Hermitage—their relationship is obviously doomed. Blame the Xbox. Sophie eventually falls in love with a man much more her type, Adam, a musicologist and the son of a writer, who she meets at an academic conference in France.
France is significant. (In his “Author’s Note,” Coe reveals that “Most of the ‘Merrie England’ section was written in Marseille, during a residency funded by the literary organisation La Marelle.”) In Middle England France is basically good, and England is basically bad. In the end, for Benjamin, it’s a choice of la France profonde versus Deep England, and France wins hands down. France is “bathed in light”: in England, the forces of darkness are gathering. When Sophie returns from her conference in Marseille to Birmingham she ponders that “these places didn’t seem to belong to different countries, or even different planets, they seemed to belong to different orders of existence altogether.”
In fairness, the well-meaning, right-on middle-class types in the book are forever trying to understand what’s up with all the dreadful people who live in middle England. For Benjamin, Doug serves as a handy explainer for what “ordinary” people are feeling: “Doug had told him about the anger he had encountered in the last few weeks on Gordon Brown’s [2010 election] campaign trail, the sense of simmering injustice, the resentment towards a financial and political establishment which had ripped people off and got away with it.” Yep. And Sohan, a friend of Sophie, and a lecturer in English, accurately describes—though deplores—the rage of the English towards “these faceless people who are sitting in judgment over them somewhere, legislating on what they can and can’t say out loud.” Probably correct.
Naheed’s analysis of the saddos who are furious for having to attend a Speed Awareness Course like the one she runs with Ian comes down to this: “A lot of the time they’re just looking for an excuse. I feel sorry for them. I think for a lot of people … there’s nothing much going on in their lives. Emotionally.” On behalf of all the angry people who have ever attended a Speed Awareness Course for doing 34 miles an hour in a 30 mile an hour zone—not so sure.
So, let’s say it loud and clear: Coe has written a brilliant Brexit novel. The best so far. The novel, though, for our strange new age? A novel. I suppose the real question, for anyone coming at things from a different, wider or indeed—perish the thought—entirely opposite angle is fine, when was the last time you wrote a 400-page multi-generational, multi-perspective series novel that tried to explore and explain the state we’re in? Maybe you’d have to go to France or somewhere to write it, but the gauntlet has been well and truly thrown down. Middle—and upper, and lower, and north, and east, and west—England awaits.
Middle England by Jonathan Coe is published by Penguin, £16.99