Review: Middle England, Jonathan Coe

I think I was still a teenager when I first read Jonathan Coe’s The Rotters’ Club, a novel about a group of teenage friends growing up in 1970s Birmingham. I was twenty when I read its incredibly depressing sequel The Closed Circle which seemed to be all about how their youthful dreams were driven into the dust. Despite being well written, for me it was a definite case of ‘good book at a bad time’. Still, the former members of the Rotters Club feel like old friends so when I spotted that a third book had been released, I ambled over to catch up with how they were doing. In Middle England, Coe addresses the recent crisis in British national identity brought about by the Brexit referendum. Given the book was published in late 2018, I was struck by quite how far it has already been overtaken by events. While the previous two books captured the change in mood as you get older and grow up, Middle England is a state of the nation novel and it left me feeling very different thoughts.

The novel opens with the 2010 General Election campaign, with the day that Gordon Brown was caught on mic calling a voter a ‘bigoted woman’. Alongside this, Benjamin Trotter is at his mother’s funeral. Most of his old school friends are also in attendance although there are notable absences. Cicely Boyd is no longer around and indeed Benjamin does not mourn her departure. Early in the novel Benjamin reflects on the stark contrast between the life he thought he would have in 1979 – lasting union with Cicely, creative success and social success. Instead, he’s living alone in a converted windmill as a borderline hermit … but he’s never been happier.

Coe noted in an interview that he had never intended to return to the Rotters Club characters. Indeed, he had always looked upon The Closed Circle as one of his lesser efforts. It was hearing another writer Alice Adams praise the story that he felt persuaded to return to the situation. Additionally, he had watched a stage production of The Rotters’ Club that made him realise that it was the love between Benjamin and Lois which was the novel’s heart and he had felt moved to investigate this further. In that respect, the first two books go rather hand in hand and Middle England is more an unexpected coda.

Much of the storyline from the earlier books felt heavily sidelined. We are assured that when Cicely left Benjamin for the second time, he just drank a large glass of whiskey and then moved on. Fine. But is there really going to be no further resolution with Malvina? I also felt real sorrow that after all this time, Claire was never going to get any closure about what happened to Miriam. The Closed Circle implied that she was just going to have to learn to live with the uncertainty but that just seems so cruel. I felt the loss of Claire as a character too. Even her fleeting reappearance towards the end was very welcome. It’s strange because Coe had seemed to suggest that Claire and Lois just overcame their bereavements but in Middle England, he acknowledges that this has not been the case for the latter and so it puzzled me that he still brushed past the former.

Lois’ characterisation was more in depth here than ever before. The horror of her fiancé’s death in one of the Birmingham pub bombings was one of the defining moments of the earlier books. When Philip saw her in Berlin, he recognises her by her trauma before he sees her face. Yet we had earlier heard that she had recovered and just decided to ‘go for it’, marrying and having her daughter Sophie. As a twenty year-old, I wanted to believe that even experiences as terrifying as hers could be conquered. I never thought that Lois ‘got over it’ or ‘moved on’. Those expressions are reductive and insulting to anyone who has experienced grief. But I had believed that she had learned to carry her pain and I had hoped that she had found real love again. That time could heal all wounds. As a woman in my thirties, I can see now that things are not that simple. This realisation tugs at me and I tried to reflect on why that was. I suppose that in a way I have known Lois Trotter for over fifteen years and I wish her peace and also to all those who suffer invisible pain.

It is Lois’ daughter Sophie who is the soul of Middle England. Briefly glimpsed in Closed Circle as a teenager falling in love with Philip’s son Patrick, here she takes the lead. If Coe was setting out to write his Brexit novel – and so many authors have done so over the past few years, intentionally or no – I have a feeling that it could have been much the same with Sophie as its lead and with no connection to the Rotters et al. Still, Benjamin manages his shining moments, particularly when his novel about his doomed love affair with Cicely is unexpectedly long-listed for the Booker prize. Then there’s Lois, struggling to contain her anguish as the political din reaches a crescendo. Even Doug plays a significant role in the novel, a leading light on Fleet Street with connections high up into the Cabinet. And again, here I felt real confusion about his newfound disdain for the ruling classes; Doug literally fell in love with privilege at an early age so the about-face really surprised me. Nevertheless, Middle England belongs less to the old guard and more to the new generation.

It’s funny how we look back over the current political mess, we wonder where it all began. I remember rolling my eyes at UKIP around about the 2005 General Election since they were clearly never going to get anywhere. Their campaign literature was ridiculous. Were the seeds sown back then? Was it the financial crash of 2008? We had to blame someone and the ruling classes wouldn’t take the blame so they had to pin it on the immigrants? Middle England traces the London riots, 2012 Olympics, Nigel Farage’s ghastly ‘Breaking Point’ advert, the awful murder of Jo Cox (very triggering for Lois) and of course the startling Referendum result. It’s a funny thing reading about such recent history. In one moment it’s not so very long ago and in others … it’s a lifetime. Thinking back to the Olympics opening ceremony and how it celebrated all that was ‘best’ about Britain … at the time it seemed to mean something. Now it’s just another moment of hopeless optimism, only remarkable because so many of us believed it at the time. One of the most striking scenes of the novel came when Sophie attended a panel discussion with two authors, one French and one English, who both express admiration for the English ‘immoderate love of moderation’ which keeps them safe from right-wing politics. Britain, they agree, is a fundamentally tolerant nation. It’s remarkable because it is indeed what I was taught growing up. Extremist politics would never get a toe-hold here because we just weren’t that sort. Alas.

It would be tempting to see Middle England as a political novel but that isn’t Coe’s area of interest. As Benjamin tries to redraft his novel so that it can finally be published, a friend advises that he ‘get rid of some of the political, historical stuff (all of it)‘. Another example is how Coe deals with the issue of Trump.

Finally, Benjamin said: “I don’t like Trump, do you?”
“Nope,” Charlie said. “Can’t stand the bloke.”
Benjamin nodded. With the political discussion out of the way …

Rather than the specifics, Coe is searching for our lost identity. If we are not the moderate followers of consensus politics that we supposed, what exactly are we? The symbol of this is Sophie’s odd-couple union with driving instructor Ian who she met at a speed awareness course. The morning their first night together, he goes out to buy breakfast and offers to get a copy of The Sunday Times. She explains that she prefers The Observer. She is an art history lecturer, he has precisely fourteen books in his flat. Their differences rub up against each other but come to a crescendo with the European referendum. In marriage counselling, Sophie observes that by Ian voting Leave, he has shown himself ‘as a person, he’s not as open as I thought he was. That his basic model for relationships comes down to antagonism and competition, not cooperation‘. By contrast, Ian feels that Sophie’s Remain vote was a sign that she is ‘very naive‘, ‘living in a bubble‘ and had an attitude of moral superiority. However, their counsellor observes,’What’s interesting about both of these answers is that neither of you mentioned politics. As if the referendum wasn’t about Europe at all. Maybe something much more fundamental and personal was going on. Which is why this might be a difficult problem to resolve.‘ And wasn’t that the whole issue in a nutshell?

The utter vacuity of the Referendum is summed up by Doug’s ‘off-the-record’ encounters with Nigel Ives, a weaselly deputy assistant director of communications in the Prime Minister’s office. In 2011, Nigel is crowing about the cabinet table ‘bantz’ between ‘Dave and Nick’. In 2015, he is rolling his eyes at Doug’s concern about the promised in-out referendum since it will never happen since there’s no way that ‘Dave’ will win an overall majority. In 2016, Nigel is telling Dave that leaving would technically be ‘Brixit’ but since it’s not going to happen (Dave is going to make sure of it), then there doesn’t need to be a word for it. And by 2017, he is a snivelling, unshaven mess who shrieks ‘Cameron broke the country, Doug. He broke the country and he ran away‘. It’s delicious.

Like so many of us, Coe has clear contempt for Cameron. However, Middle England is not an uncritically pro-Remain novel. Doug’s daughter Coriander is an obnoxious example of the alt-left. As a teenager, she heads out from her millionaire mother’s flat to join in the riots and later joins ‘Students for Corbyn’. Her mother may express approval that Coriander ‘cares about other people’, but Doug is less sure, remarking ‘Does she, though? Sometimes I think she’s just addicted to getting outraged on other people’s behalf.‘ And if Sophie is pro-Remain, she is also a heavily flawed character. Her habitual over-analysing of everything is infuriating and clearly difficult to live with. Specifically, her long-term reflection on a semi-adulterous encounter with a former colleague six years after the event  … well, it was nails-digging-into-your-thighs level of cringeworthiness. Sophie reminded me rather vividly of some dear but frustrating friends who struggle to function without a romantic partner but because the relationship stems from that insecurity, their eyes do tend to wander. Rather than a true companion, they have settled and if you still believe that a better offer may be out there, you cannot build a commitment in which you can truly abide.

Middle England journeys up and down through all walks of life. There’s Ian’s odious mother who believes that Enoch Powell was right all along and is highly suspicious of her mild-mannered Lithuanian cleaner. We see an old ‘friend’ from the first book, Ronald Culpepper, now chairman of the Imperium Society and who seems to have been one of the people steering the country towards a Leave vote. Charlie, a children’s entertainer and former schoolmate of Benjamin, is a food-bank user who is borderline homeless. He is also locked in a petty dispute with professional rival Doctor Daredevil and this gradually escalates over the course of the book. A disagreement once small and unimportant slowly grows into a much more bitter antagonism with far wider scope. Reminding anyone of anything? As if we as a nation are perhaps prone to building feuds and losing our sense of proportion? I had such fondness for Charlie. His uncritical love for his stepdaughter gave the novel some of its most truly tender moments. But it was a common theme of the novel, while the characters have their frustrations about the world that they live in, they are also prepared to grant each other grace.

A lot of the concerns of Middle England can be seen as those typical to people in late middle age – Coe’s own stage of life. The Rotters have grown up. They have to take care of their ageing parents. They struggle to relate to their baffling children. Their marriages are wearing thin and they have to be brave to make the leap. While Coe’s politics do seem to lean more towards Remain, this is a fairly centrist novel. The people here can laugh at themselves and there is much humour to be had. Benjamin’s publishing adventures are hilarious but it is also truly lovely to see him finally achieving success. His romantic entanglements are also sweetly funny. While there are moments of helter-skelter horror such as the awful death of Jo Cox, Middle England is a very reassuring novel. Its very ending leaves the reader filled with optimism. But that in itself is a problem.

As I finished it, I thought of the months and months of protracted negotiations that followed that point, the national humiliations, political in-fighting, the General Election and then even after that, Brexit has now been completely overshadowed. The sanctuary that Lois and Benjamin have found at the novel’s end seems destined to be very short-lived. The new hope from the book’s closing pages has a tough road ahead. The Rotters’ Club closed in 1979 with Benjamin being told that he and Cicely Boyd will be together and that Britain will never have a female Prime Minister. Middle England unintentionally finishes on a similar note. This novel was clever, had strong characterisation and was full of warm humour but like all of us, Coe has been taken by surprise by a virus which has pushed his state of the nation tale into premature obsolescence. I wish each and every Rotter the very, very best of luck. We all need it.

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I received this book for free in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

Middle England by Jonathan Coe
Published by Penguin UK on November 8th 2018
Genres: Fiction, Political, Literary, Humorous, General, Family Life, Marriage & Divorce, Small Town & Rural, City Life
Pages: 432
ISBN: 9780241981320

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2 thoughts on “Review: Middle England, Jonathan Coe

  1. A very thoughtful response to this series.
    I read ME before Covid-19 so enjoyed the take on Brexit politics and felt I learnt a lot. I hadn’t read the earlier books though, so I didn’t have the same relationship with the characters as you obviously have.
    I’ve since read The Rotter’s Club and found it quite annoying in places, but school boy stories are not favourite genre! I wanted more of the Irish politics stuff and the strikes.

    1. It’s funny isn’t it – if I had read all three books in a shorter time frame, I would probably have fewer reflections. But I really was quite young when I read the other books and the sadness at the core of The Closed Circle really hit me at the time. And yes, the Rotters Club does have its annoying moments because you meet them all when they’re a crowd of annoying teenage boys. But they do grow up – Philip is always pretty lovely but I’ve never understood why Claire married him!

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