Middle England by Jonathan Coe

Reviewed by Annabel

By the time I’d finished reading Coe’s latest novel, it was about a fortnight after publication and by this time he (and his publisher Penguin Viking) could claim a big publicity success. There had been spreads about the book and Coe in all the broadsheet arts pages, reviews in the latest issues of the Literary Review and the TLS; Middle England was also a ‘Book at Bedtime’ on Radio 4.

Why all the hoo-hah? 

Simply put, Middle England is Coe’s Brexit novel! It’s a state of the nation story that revisits characters from his earlier books The Rotter’s Club which was set in 1970s Birmingham and its sequel The Closed Circle (which was Coe’s millennial novel).

Benjamin Trotter is a writer who has never got over his first love and has been writing a sprawling doorstop of a novel about her ever since; he still lives in the Midlands, but a posher bit than Birmingham where he grew up. His old schoolfriend Doug has become a successful leftish political columnist, ironically living in a Chelsea mansion with his teenaged daughter Coriander and son Rannulph. A major sub-plot will examine the relationship between Ben’s niece Sophie and Ian, an instructor she meets on a speed awareness course; this pair are perhaps the epitome of Middle England – if not ‘Deep England’ as Sophie and her London-based friend Sohan discuss endlessly.

But on the morning of Sunday, 9 August 2015, Sophie came as close, she felt, as she would ever come to solving the mystery. If Deep England existed, she decided, it was here: here on the fifth hole of the Gold and Country Club at Kernel Magna.

The narrative takes us from 2010 through to September 2018, so ending in the future when Coe was writing the novel. Coe gently takes us through the years, pausing at London 2012 for a lovely section in which all the main characters are separately watching the opening ceremony and each finding something in it that resonates with them, from Pink Floyd to the Queen and James Bond to Mike Oldfield, the latter getting Benjamin reminiscing:

He was thinking back to the mid-1970s, a couple of years after Mike Oldfield’s album had been released., how he and his friends used to listen to it in the common room at King William’s School and have endless nerdy discussions about it. Doug, who at this time was listening mainly to Motown, would not attempt to hide his disdain. To the rest of them, however, it was a sacred musical text.

It is Benjamin that provides the story with most of its melancholy moments, including when he takes his ageing father to the shopping mall that replaced the Longbridge car plant where he’d worked. Benjamin, Coe’s de facto alter-ego, will later get his moment in the limelight, when his novel, excised to just one section, is shortlisted for the Booker Prize – sadly something Coe has never achieved (although he has won other awards).

There are plenty of comic set pieces, one of which, the squabbling between two rival children’s entertainers in a Midlands garden centre, is an apt allegory for the Brexit wars.

Doug’s off the record meetings in a backstreet café with the number ten spin-doctor are where Coe lays his ‘remainer’ cards on the table – making Dave’s decision about the referendum seem exactly what it turned out to be a vanity project which he didn’t think he’d lose. Indeed, Coe, although always writing about very English concerns, has long given them a European outlook – which took flight in his novel Expo ’58 (reviewed here).

Middle England is a sprawling novel as Coe explores his concepts of what England is to everyone; it lacks the tighter focus and satire of his previous novel Number 11 (reviewed here), but for anyone who read The Rotter’s Club and The Closed Circle, there is comfort to be found in the familiar characters who are now middle aged. Indeed I’d go so far as to hope for a another visit to Ben, Doug and the others to see how they get on in post-Brexit-land.

Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Jonathan Coe, Middle England (Viking, 2018). 978-0241309469, 432pp., hardback.

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