As Jonathan Coe and I stride along the ridge of the Lickey Hills, 10 miles south of Birmingham, the 54-old-year novelist confesses that one of the things he loves about this particular walk is something that might put other ramblers off. “You never stop hearing the noise of traffic,” he says. “And that reminds me that Birmingham is a car-industry city — or used to be.”
The author of 11 novels, including the highly acclaimed What A Carve Up! and The Rotters’ Club, Coe grew up in Lickey and spent many weekends walking this landscape with his parents and older brother. He points out the former site of the British Leyland factory at Longbridge, which once stretched across the full width of the horizon but is now represented by a single green-roofed building. “I remember everyone had a family member who was involved in making cars. My dad was a research scientist working on car batteries. It was considered a real act of national disloyalty to buy a car that wasn’t made by British Leyland.”
Coe’s experience of growing up in Middle England has informed much of his writing; satirical, leftwing novels renowned for lambasting the damage wrought by national politics. His books have won him numerous plaudits both in the UK and France, including the Everyman Wodehouse Prize and the Prix Médicis; his popularity in France is such that, in 2004, he was made a knight of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres for his contribution to literature.
His new novel, Number 11, takes as its starting point the death of David Kelly, the government scientist identified as the source for a BBC story that the government had “sexed up” an intelligence report to justify going to war in Iraq in 2003. As we walk along the ridge of Bilberry Hill, with views of the city to our right, I tell Coe that many of the events he references in Number 11 — from the Iraq war to the fate of the Morecombe Bay cockle-pickers — feel as though they happened a long time ago rather than within the past 15 years. “Our memory spans get shorter and shorter, I think,” he says. “Things that happened a decade ago become history very quickly. And we forget so quickly.”
Today’s walk, however, continues to evoke deeply engrained memories for Coe, who now lives in London with his wife and two teenage daughters. “This is traditionally where Brummies would come for their Saturday or Sunday afternoon walk. It used to be a family event, a social thing. There used to be tea rooms and a funfair. You would meet friends you weren’t expecting to. It was still a communal space.”
Heading down Bilberry Hill, we cross the road and head left through the trees to begin our ascent up Rednal Hill. As we reach the top, Coe explains his ambivalence about returning to the location of his childhood home, where his mother still occupies the same house she’s lived in for 59 years.
“I love it and hate it at the same time. The narrowness of its vision is something I still feel in myself and I have to fight against and break out of the whole time.”
At the bottom of Rednal Hill, we emerge on to Leech Green Lane and then head straight back into the woods towards Beacon Hill, where we walk through thick, luscious undergrowth between tall canopies of trees. This is, Coe tells me, Tolkien landscape: JRR Tolkien grew up around here and, like Coe, spent many of his formative years hiking through these woods.
“I remember when I first read Lord of the Rings, when I was 10 or 11, thinking something feels very familiar about this. I recognised the landscape. And it’s a Midlands novel, really.
It’s a Birmingham provincial novel. They go away and come back again but that’s essentially what it is.”
Tolkien spent his childhood in and around the Lickey Hills; he first moved here at the age of three, when his father died, and attended the King Edwards’ School, a secondary grammar in Birmingham. Seventy years later, Coe attended the same school, and feels that he’s “shadowed Tolkien’s footsteps in all sorts of ways, even though we’re completely different writers. But I think we both write about Middle England. That’s really what our subjects are.”
Coe began writing in earnest during his student days at Trinity College, Cambridge. Those years were, he reflects, “my first experience of being looked down on socially, my first contact with the sense of entitlement of people who’ve grown up expecting to be special, which I never had.” As a result, Coe eschewed punting on the Cam and May Balls in favour of creative writing. “My main memory of Cambridge is hiding in my room, writing books.” Even now, more than 30 years later, it is this solitude that draws him to be a novelist. “The solitariness of writing is what I love about it. Being alone in a room for eight hours a day with imaginary people is my idea of heaven.”
Our path through Tolkien country eventually leads us to the top of Beacon Hill, where a large toposcope fort dominates the summit. Offering sweeping views over Birmingham, it was, Coe tells me, built by the Cadbury family after they bought these hills and gave them to the city at the beginning of the 20th century.
“It’s one of the reasons everyone in Birmingham loves the Cadbury family. It’s a city built on chocolate and cars. The blokes did cars and the women did chocolate. All my aunts and great-aunts worked in the Cadbury factory in Bournville.”
Heading down Beacon Hill, I wonder whether Coe is more optimistic about the British political landscape in 2015 than he was when writing his early novels. “Not really. Without noticing, and without thinking about it, we’ve allowed control over our lives to be given to people in the City, who don’t have our interests at heart. We’ve never voted for these people and yet they kind of control our destinies.”
As we finish our walk, Coe takes in one last view and I remark that he seems a little wistful. “I’m a very nostalgic person and I had a very happy childhood, so I’m very attached to this whole area for that reason. These hills represent family to me.”
‘Number 11’ is published by Viking, £16.99
Photographs: Gareth Phillips
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