Middle England by Jonathan Coe
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.