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In 2004, after the publication of his seventh novel, The Closed Circle, Jonathan Coe told the Financial Times: “I have a disquieting sense that I don’t have any more of these panoramic serio-comic political novels left in me.”
That book was a sequel to The Rotters’ Club, published three years earlier. Both are, to adopt Coe’s terminology, “serio-comic” novels in which the personal stories of a group of Birmingham school friends are unwound against a vividly drawn political backdrop.
Coe had made his reputation — and scored a commercial and critical success — with What a Carve Up!, an angry satire of the depredations of the Thatcher years published in 1994. In The Rotters’ Club, he looked back to the volatile politics of Britain in the 1970s that prepared the ground for Thatcherism — industrial strife, Irish Republican terrorism and a renascent far-right surfing the backwash of Enoch Powell’s “rivers of blood” speech. The Closed Circle skips two decades and is set in the early 2000s, in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and amid the reigniting of racial tensions in England’s post-industrial north.
Now, 14 years and several books later, it turns out that Coe did have one more of these novels left in him. Middle England completes a trilogy, reunites readers with the protagonist Benjamin Trotter and is saturated in the fraught and sometimes frightening politics of Englishness that found an outlet during the 2016 EU referendum campaign. One critic has already called Middle England the “first great Brexit novel” — just as The Rotters’ Club was a 1970s novel and The Closed Circle a New Labour-era novel. And there is something in that — although, re-reading the earlier books alongside this one, you see that England and Englishness have been on Coe’s mind for a while.
Benjamin, now in his early fifties, is semi-retired, having done well out of the London property market, and is fulfilling one of his life’s ambitions by living in a converted mill in Shropshire, a county described in The Closed Circle as “one of the oldest and least-known, most mysterious and recondite” in all of England. (Liminal Shropshire, wedged between the Black Country and the Welsh border, figures throughout the trilogy as a kind of portal to another England, standing for something ancient and elusive, a counterpart to suburban Birmingham in the 1970s or to the exurban Middle England of the early 21st century, with its retail parks, Amazon fulfilment centres and coffee shop chains.)
If living by the “ageless, immutable” River Severn was something that Benjamin always yearned to do, other ambitions remain unfulfilled. Principal among these is the completion of Unrest, a sprawling “narrative of European history since Britain’s accession to the Common Market in 1973”, combined with a “scrupulous account of his interior life during that period” that he began working on as a student at Oxford. It also has a musical soundtrack composed by Benjamin himself, and no doubt channelling his twin influences of the more arcane end of 1970s progressive rock and the English pastoral of Ralph Vaughan Williams. By now it is more than a million words long, and two large holdalls are required to lug the typescript around.
In one of the most amusing scenes in Middle England, a “committee meeting” is called in a Birmingham pub at which Benjamin and two of his oldest friends (familiar from the earlier books), plus their former English teacher, decide what to do about this baggy monster. They persuade him to ditch the music and the political and historical bits, insisting that there is a slender love story struggling to get out of his bloated Gesamtkunstwerk. The drastically slimmed-down book is published by his friend Philip Chase’s small press and is eventually longlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
It is hard not to suspect Coe of having some sly fun at his own expense here — or at least that he is inviting us to think about the connections, however tenuous, between Benjamin’s “novel sequence, his roman fleuve, whatever the damn thing was supposed to be called”, and the novel sequence in which it appears. To think, in other words, about just what kind of literary project this impressive and highly ambitious trilogy amounts to.
Coe has spoken of his admiration for “long sequences of semi-autobiographical novels, romans fleuves” (that term again) like Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu or Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time. The series that Middle England completes is obviously not executed on the same scale as those 20th-century masterpieces, but it at least has the same aim of implanting a semi-autobiographical narrative — like Benjamin, Coe attended an academically selective school in Birmingham in the 1970s — in rich historical soil.
Brexit certainly looms large here. Benjamin has a tense conversation with his widowed father about lost national greatness. While they are driving around the site of what used to be the Longbridge car plant in Birmingham, the older man complains that “the rest of the world’s laughing at us” and insists that Benjamin arrange a postal vote for him in the 2016 EU referendum. He intends to vote Leave, of course.
And then there is Benjamin’s niece Sophie, who finds herself on the opposite side of the debate from her husband and eventually separates from him. At a counselling session, she recognises that the Leave vote was a “tipping point” in the slow unravelling of their marriage.
These episodes are woven together with bits of contemporaneous historical material — the transcript of Barack Obama’s fateful intervention in the referendum campaign (“the UK is going to be in the back of the queue”), for instance, or a tweet from the novelist Robert Harris calling the referendum “the most depressing, divisive, duplicitous political event” of his lifetime.
The effect is not entirely satisfactory. It sometimes feels as though Coe has simply tipped the contents of his notebook straight into the novel. These sections of the book suffer from a shortcoming that afflicts any work of fiction that hews so closely to very recent events: they feel like barely sublimated polemic. This wasn’t as much of a problem in The Rotters’ Club, where the historical frame is sufficiently distant that we never forget what one character calls the “ungodly strangeness” of the period, the “weird things that were happening all the time”.
In any event, if you’ve been paying attention to Coe’s public pronouncements in recent years, you will know exactly where he stands. In his contribution to a post-referendum symposium on Brexit, he wrote: “I feel . . . that I understand my country a little better than I did before . . . but I love it a good deal less.” He has also said that he has always thought of himself as “a European writer, and European as a person”, and that he regards the vote to leave the EU as “an assault on my identity”.
But if Middle England were simply a fictionalised howl of aggrieved Remainer-dom, it would be considerably less arresting than it actually is. What is interesting about Coe — and what is interesting about this novel and the other two in the trilogy — is not so much his flight from Englishness as his ambivalent embrace of it.
The action in Middle England spans a little over eight years — from the spring of 2010, with the general election that brought the New Labour years to a close, to the late summer of 2018. One of the pivotal moments in that narrative arc is the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics in London, an event that allows Coe to bring the central characters in his cast together in a sort of simulacrum of the televisual communion that Benjamin remembers from his 1970s adolescence, and for which he remains deeply nostalgic — so much so that he buys his father a DVD of the 1977 Morecambe & Wise Christmas special.
His friend Doug Anderton, a distinguished political journalist, is struck by the occasional “weirdness” of Danny Boyle’s production of the ceremony, and by the way it gestures towards what he calls a “Deep England”, in which dwell repositories of strangeness and melancholy that Benjamin claims to commune with in his Shropshire fastness. The idea that there is a distinctively English melancholy that is the flipside of native violence and anger is one that runs through all three novels in Coe’s sequence.
Here, it is captured in a folk song that Benjamin plays to his mother on her deathbed. “Adieu to Old England”, performed by Shirley Collins, is “a story of loss, of loss of privilege, that resonated across the centuries”.
When Doug’s girlfriend reads Benjamin’s novel, she pronounces it “beautifully written but depressing”. Doug replies that melancholy, “English melancholy in particular”, is “very much Benjamin’s thing”. It is very much Coe’s thing too. And however much he claims to reject it, this novel shows the degree to which he remains in its thrall.
Middle England, by Jonathan Coe, Viking RRP£16.99, 424 pages
Jonathan Derbyshire is the FT’s executive opinion editor
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