Sunday, February 09, 2020

the last book I read

Middle England by Jonathan Coe.

There is, I think, a reasonably convincing argument that there was a moment in 2010 when the UK's reality timeline diverged into two radically different futures: the normal one where everyone continued bimbling along, muddling through, not really worrying too much about customs unions, non-tariff barriers, regulatory alignment or overt and unashamed displays of racism (not to mention actual murdering of MPs in the street), and the shouty dystopian right-wing fractured hellscape we currently inhabit, and that furthermore that moment can be identified as the few hours during which the Gillian Duffy affair played out in the public eye. Perhaps there is even now a wibbly-wobbly parallel universe where Gordon Brown either remembered to remove his radio mic before getting in the car, or provided a more robust response to her criticisms than caving in and issuing a grovelling apology.
Broadly speaking, Middle England takes the same view, or at least it starts in the same place, in the run-up to the 2010 UK general election. That is where we meet most of the major characters: Benjamin Trotter, his sister Lois, her daughter Sophie, and various of Benjamin and Lois' schoolfriends - journalist Doug Anderton, publisher Philip Chase, and a few others. All of them would be in their early fifties (Sophie is younger, obviously) and will be familiar (in younger incarnations) to anyone who's read Coe's earlier books The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle, to which Middle England is a loose sequel.

Benjamin is really the focal point of the story here, as he was in the two previous books, and he's currently living a comfortable enough life in a nice riverside cottage, single, no particular need to work for a living, spending a lot of time honing his magnum opus, a gargantuan novel with accompanying self-composed prog-rock soundtrack. Lois, meanwhile, is still married to, but living apart from, her husband, and their daughter Sophie is in the early stages of an academic career and nurturing a fledgling romance with Ian, whom she met when he was the instructor on a speed awareness course she was obliged to take.

Benjamin is persuaded by some friends (specifically Philip, who offers to publish the book for him) to trim his enormo-novel down by a couple of thousand pages to a brief novella encompassing the pursuit and subsequent loss of an ex-girlfriend and ditch all the other stuff (including the prog-rock soundtrack). Against all odds, it is a slow-burning critical success and gets longlisted for the Booker Prize. Meanwhile Sophie's relationship with Ian progresses through engagement, marriage and some post-marriage disillusionment at the realisation that basically he isn't as bright as her and harbours certain attitudes that might have been kept safely under wraps were it not for certain external factors, specifically the Conservative victory at the 2015 general election and David Cameron's offer of a referendum on the UK's membership of the European Union.

So you don't need me to tell you what happens next: wild and unpredictable forces are unleashed, MPs are murdered in the street, Britain votes to leave the European Union and an uncertain future faces everyone. Sophie and Ian manage, against the odds, and perhaps only temporarily, to hold things together, and Benjamin and Lois, disillusioned with the state of the UK, decide to move to France and open a B&B.

I read both The Rotters' Club and The Closed Circle (published in 2001 and 2004 but set in mid-1970s and late-1990s respectively) but I find myself oddly unable to tell you much at all about what happened in them, other than some of the real historical background they played out against (the only point where the characters' lives intersected that I can remember was when Lois Trotter's then-boyfriend was killed in the Birmingham pub bombings). Perhaps this is because not a great deal actually does happen, a criticism that could probably be levelled at Middle England as well. There's an odd sort of contrast between the low-key personal concerns of the characters and the grand sweep of history that they play out against, and to be honest I'm not sure how well it really works.

One of the obvious problems with writing about Brexit in particular is avoiding the temptation to portray all the Leave voters as frothing racists; all the more difficult because a significant proportion of them undoubtedly are frothing racists. Coe is pretty good at identifying some of the long-term causes of Brexit - Thatcher-era hollowing-out of the industrial heartlands of (mostly) the north and the failure to replace them with anything; the increasingly London-centric focus of investment, the increasing feeling of people in the former industrial areas that they were being ignored by successive governments and therefore had nothing to lose by a destructive lashing-out, however irrational, when offered a rare opportunity to do so via direct democratic means.

The problem, I think. as with any novel that purports to closely track actual history, is avoiding just writing a series of editorials about the real events you're describing, and also convincingly entwining these real events with the lives of your fictional characters in such a way that it they seem to have a real impact. I'm not sure Middle England really carries off this second bit, largely because most of the major characters are too middle-class and comfortably-off to be affected in any fundamental way. To put it another way, anyone who is able to react to Brexit by upping sticks and moving to France to open a B&B with seemingly no pressingly urgent need for it to turn a profit is someone who wasn't going to be too badly affected by it in the first place, even if they'd stayed put.

However: Coe's novels are always intensely readable, the weird fracturing of personal and family relationships that undoubtedly did happen in the aftermath of the referendum when it became apparent that apparently simpatico people had voted in opposite ways is well presented, and most of the characters (Sophie in particular, who is a bit less cosily middle-aged than the rest) are broadly sympathetic. I think my favourite Coe novel is still the slightly odder The House Of Sleep, though.

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