Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 13, 2019

Middle England, by Jonathan Coe

I swear it, hand on heart—it is just coincidence that I am writing this review as we in Australia wake up to the news that the latest Brexit deal has been voted down in the House of Commons.  While the ominous date of Mar 29th is etched on hearts across England, it’s not on mine because I’ve been ignoring Brexit, hoping it will go away.  Truth be told, I bought this post-Brexit novel by Jonathan Coe because I was attracted by the cover.  This is the blurb:

Beginning eight years ago on the outskirts of Birmingham, where car factories have been replaced by Poundland, and London, where frenzied riots give way to Olympic fever, Middle England follows a brilliantly vivid cast of characters through a time of immense change.

There are newlyweds Ian and Sophie, who disagree about the future of the country and, possibly, the future of their relationship; Doug, the political commentator who writes impassioned columns about austerity from his Chelsea townhouse, and his radical daughter who will stop at nothing in her quest for social justice; Benjamin Trotter, who embarks on an apparently doomed career in middle age, and his father, Colin whose last wish is to vote in the European referendum.  And within all these lives is the story of modern England: a story of nostalgia and delusion; of bewilderment and barely suppressed rage.

Readers from the UK will probably know that this is the last in a trilogy, following on from The Rotters’ Club (2001) and The Closed Circle (2004)But I haven’t read either of those, so I came to Middle England entirely fresh.  It doesn’t seem to have mattered, the novel works perfectly well on its own.

I thought it was going to be a bit like Phillip Hensher’s The Northern Clemency which offered a human face to post-Thatcher Britain — and it is, except that Middle England unpacks the collapsing social cohesion which is the defining feature of our age.  Middle England is not just the nostalgic image on the front cover, it is a civic nationalism that meandered pleasantly like an old river, its dangerous force spent far upstream. This quotation that begins the ‘Merrie England’ section of the novel comes from an article in The Guardian by Ian Jack, which quotes in turn, Orwell in 1941 on the subject of England: “A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase”.  It’s a long essay, but worth reading if you have time: it speaks of an England, despite its contradictions and hypocrisies, bound by an invisible chain.  Britain, Orwell wrote, was incapable of militarism but had an emotional unity, the tendency of nearly all its inhabitants to feel alike and act together in moments of supreme crisis.  Middle England the novel shows with devastating clarity that British emotional unity is gone…

It is, however, a thoroughly entertaining novel, and the satire is droll.  Its characters are fully realised, and as they negotiate the changing landscape around them, their interior lives are laid bare.  The Trotters are a family who have their own human issues to sort out: how to make a living; how to cope with cantankerous but needy parents; how to deal with vexatious complaints in a university.  They get stuck in traffic and they get speeding tickets.  They sometimes fail the dress code and they forget to do important things. They are not interested in sport but they take an unexpected pride in the Olympics opening ceremony, one of them so overtaken by his excitement that he buys a ticket to an obscure event (which he doesn’t attend). They have siblings they can’t abide, and they fumble sexual relationships.  They have friends who behave badly in the old ordinary way, and they look on the increasingly bad temper of the times as an aberration that they can’t quite grasp.

It is, perhaps, presumptuous of me to conclude that Coe has been reasonably even-handed about Brexit.  I haven’t been paying much attention to Britain; it’s my birthplace, and it’s a nice place to visit, but it’s increasingly irrelevant to modern Australia and since Brexit it seems like the kind of relation we’d rather not have.  (Kevin Rudd was spot on in this recent article at The Guardian about the Commonwealth moving on elsewhere.)   Coe represents what had been subterranean resentments about Europe not just through the voice of grumpy old men and women but also the young who feel disenfranchised and passed over.  But although Coe gives a nod to the diversity of Britain with his characters of colour and a couple of gays, his Trotter family is middle class and none of them ever face poverty, even if temporarily hard-up, and they are not victims of the global economy or austerity.  Those whose perspective we see are either international in outlook, or benign towards Europe, or preoccupied by their own lives and not really paying attention until events force them into it.  Observations of the opposing force and its unpleasant nationalism are filtered, therefore, through them.  They are moderates, which in today’s world puts them on a side.

Other reviews are at The Guardian and this one at The Irish Times.

Author: Jonathan Coe
Title: Middle England
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House), 2018, 422 pages
ISBN: 9780241309476
Source: Personal copy, purchased at The Avenue Bookshop Elsternwick, $32.99

 


Responses

  1. Middle England seems never to have come to grips with the difference between their self image and the reality of multiculturalism following the waves of post-War, post-Empire immigration from the West Indies and the sub-continent and then later from Eastern Europe. Too many of them are now lashing out blindly in the hope that it will all go away – fanned of course by the ravings of the tabloid press, and, it seems, Russian trolls.

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    • The novel certainly shows that multiculturalism seems to be a city phenomenon (as it is in Australia) and there are characters who are entirely comfortable with that, and there are those who are not. Sophie’s husband Ian who has a strong sense of male entitlement is passed over for promotion by someone he thinks got the job because of political correctness. His awful mother thinks so too, but Sophie thinks it’s fair enough. There’s nothing uncommon about that, what’s different is the lashing out, which we see here too though in social media, not with violence on the streets.

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  2. Thanks for the review. Onto the list it goes.

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    • Oh, I’d love to know what you think of this!

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      • I’ve liked all his books so far

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        • Have you reviewed any of the others in this trilogy? I did a bit of a search but I didn’t find anything…

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  3. Nice review. I enjoyed this book a lot – his third to feature the Trotters. ‘Droll’ is the perfect description of Coe’s writing, there is satire there but it lies just underneath his drollery which I love. One of my favourite authors.

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    • Hi Annabel, yes, I like humour that is subtle. The Brits are famous for it!

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  4. Great review. This book, as we as your post brings up all sorts of issues. We are both indeed living in tumultuous times. Extremism of all sorts is on the rise. You raise a good point that being a moderate is indeed taking a stand. I believe that one function of fiction is to try to grapple with issues like this.

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    • Absolutely, Brian, I agree. I love books that look at the big picture and deliver a new way of looking at it. That’s one of the reasons I love the novel:)

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  5. Thanks for the review Lisa. I’ve read both The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle and I recommend both of them. Each book captures its era and I’m looking forward to reading Middle England.

    PS: A little bit of trivia. At the moment The Rotters’ Club holds the record for the longest sentence in English, all 13,995 words of it. The record is about to be smashed but that’s another story.

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    • My goodness, I am surprised because Coe’s style in this one doesn’t give any hint of that!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jonathan Coe apparently wrote the sentence as a homage to Bohumil Hrabal, a Czech writer who wrote a 128 page single sentence novel in the 60’s.

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  6. I’m intrigued by this, particularly the blurb which says “the story of modern England: a story of nostalgia and delusion; of bewilderment and barely suppressed rage” and which seems to completely sum us up nowadays.

    But I do worry a little if the book completely ignores how multicultural we really are in the UK now. That’s why I think the whole leave thing is so dumb, because we’re a country built on constant waves of immigration anyway (as is the whole world) and that kind of Island Nation stuff is pretty pointless. Frankly, I do feel like we (and the world in general actually) is going to hell in a handcart..

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    • I may have led you up the garden path…. I wouldn’t say it completely ignores multiculturalism, but because it’s basically about a white middle-class family, that’s the filter you see it through because it’s their perspectives you get. And even those PoVs are limited: you hear and see the racist MIL via Sophie’s observations, you don’t have what the MIL is thinking, only what she says and does.
      But without giving away spoilers, there is a white character who fancies a black one, there is an Anglo-Indian Muslim gay marriage, and there’s a couple from Poland or Romania (I forget which) as well. And they are proper characters, not just adding PC if you know what I mean.
      But obviously if Zadie Smith wrote it, it would be a different novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The fact that this has been billed as a Brexit novel is the whole reason why I’ve avoided it despite quite liking the Coe novels I’ve read in the past. (BTW, the Brexit date is March 29, not May.)

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    • Oops, sorry, I knew that (and have fixed it). #FreudianTypoMay is on my mind because the programme for the Auckland Writers Festival in May is out at last!

      I wonder how you would read this novel (if you did): I reckon Aussies read it as a sort of embarrassing spectacle, (relatives behaving badly) whereas Expats such as yourself might see it entirely differently and yet not quite as a Brit would, and that in turn would depend on whether the Brit had roots in Middle England or not.

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  8. I haven’t read any Coe but I did love The Northern Clemency so this appeals.

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    • I really liked the Hensher. Big baggy novels can sometimes be a bore, but not that one.

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  9. […] 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. […]

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