Mid­dle Eng­land by Jonathan Coe

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - Lucy Hughes-hal­lett

LUCY HUGHES-HAL­LETT Mid­dle Eng­land By Jonathan Coe Pen­guin/vik­ing £16.99 Oldie price £15.12 inc p&p

Jonathan Coe is a brave man to have taken as his ti­tle a phrase that is usu­ally ut­tered only in or­der to scoff.

Coe is not a scoffer. He brings to his story the qual­i­ties of hu­mour and mod­er­a­tion as­so­ci­ated with the mid­dle ground – a good van­tage point from which to get an in­clu­sive view. This novel is the third (after The Rot­ters’

Club and The Closed Cir­cle) to fol­low the lives of a group of friends we first met when they were at a se­lec­tive-en­try state se­condary school in Birm­ing­ham in the 1970s. In this one, the char­ac­ters’ ways have di­verged so widely that it takes a par­ent’s fu­neral or the Olympics open­ing cer­e­mony to bring them all to­gether again. (In the lat­ter case, they are ac­tu­ally scat­tered, but all watch­ing the same thing on telly – the mod­ern equiv­a­lent of a com­mu­nal event.)

Mid­dle Eng­land is a place as well as a state of mind. Coe’s char­ac­ters drive through it re­peat­edly. It is a zone of petrol sta­tions and gar­den cen­tres, brown her­itage signs in­di­cat­ing Na­tional Trust prop­er­ties, and slow-down warn­ing lights. In it, na­ture is tamed and com­mod­i­fied. Char­ac­ters go for walks, but Coe’s im­agery keeps switch­ing us back from time­less beauty to mod­ern ba­nal­ity. Even a river in spate is likened to a ‘queue of bad-tem­pered com­muters try­ing to squeeze through a ticket bar­rier’.

Each char­ac­ter has their own mi­lieu and nar­ra­tive mode. Doug is a po­lit­i­cal com­men­ta­tor for a broad­sheet. In his con­ver­sa­tions with a twen­tysome­thing spokesman for the Cameron/clegg coali­tion, Coe shows the PR man twist­ing truth as adroitly as Lewis Car­roll’s Red Queen. You can’t help but ad­mire the weasel for his way with words.

Other sto­ry­lines have dif­fer­ent tones. Char­lie, the chil­dren’s party en­ter­tainer, is des­per­ate: his nar­ra­tive strand blends stark mis­ery with farce. For Ben­jamin, who has spent most of his adult life writ­ing an un­pub­lish­able ro­man fleuve, Coe slows down the pace and soft­ens the hu­mour. Set­tling, in mid-life, into his new home by the river bank, Ben­jamin is as equable as Ken­neth Gra­hame’s Mole and as cosy as a Hob­bit in his Mid­dle Earth hole.

Mean­while, his niece, So­phie, is out en­gag­ing with the world, fall­ing in love with that mod­ern au­thor­ity fig­ure, a speed-aware­ness in­struc­tor, and re­peat­edly hav­ing her left-lib­eral prin­ci­pals tested by sit­u­a­tions where her be­liefs (pos­i­tive dis­crim­i­na­tion in favour of women and BAME peo­ple is a good thing) clash with her per­sonal in­ter­ests (her white boyfriend doesn’t get pro­mo­tion).

Some­times, dreams come true – up to a point. Ben­jamin’s novel – cut by about nine-tenths – is long-listed for the Booker Prize. Only long-listed. It doesn’t make him rich, and his sole ex­pe­ri­ence of fame is a com­i­cally aw­ful in­ter­view with a bored pro­file-writer. Some­times, dreams stay dreams. When So­phie, fed up with her hus­band, con­tacts a man she met six years pre­vi­ously, and with whom she has been se­cretly nurs­ing a fan­tasy of run­ning off, she finds that – nat­u­rally enough – the man has since mar­ried.

Coe’s vi­sion is comic – a chap­ter on board a cruise liner is hi­lar­i­ous – and sar­don­ically un­ro­man­tic. Some of the most sig­nif­i­cant re­la­tion­ships here are non-sex­ual: Ben­jamin’s with his sis­ter; Char­lie’s with his step­daugh­ter.

The most poignant pas­sage is that in which Ben­jamin drives his frail, halfde­mented fa­ther round what was once the Long­bridge plant. Where he and thou­sands of oth­ers worked, the old man, be­wil­dered, sees only shop­ping malls. There’s no cheap nos­tal­gia in the writ­ing here; only a pa­tient, sad ac­cep­tance of mu­ta­bil­ity.

The novel be­gins in 2010 and comes right up to the present. It cov­ers the Olympics and the Queen’s Ju­bilee, the 2011 ri­ots and the mi­gra­tion cri­sis. Sev­eral of the char­ac­ters are from mi­nor­ity eth­nic groups. There is a sub-plot in­volv­ing the mod­ern pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with gen­der flu­id­ity. And, in­evitably, there’s a lot about Brexit.

This is a state-of-the-na­tion novel, the lat­est in a line of them in which Coe has been prov­ing him­self an ex­cep­tion­ally as­tute dis­sec­tor of each decade’s par­tic­u­lar ab­sur­di­ties. It will be a good thing to be read­ing as 29th March looms.

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