This is the first novel that I’ve read by Jonathan Coe. He’s frequently mentioned on The Guardian Books podcast as the kind of writer who always seems to just miss out on winning the top literary prizes – and indeed, Middle England was nominated for the 2019 Costa prize. I thought, therefore, that it was high time I gave his work a go.
Middle England picks up on the lives of characters from some of Coe’s earlier works, but it’s not necessary to have read these – as I discovered. In fact, they inhabit a world which is all too familiar, since Coe’s novel spans the years between 2011 and 2018 when what we thought we knew about Britain and the British all started to unravel. Middle England revisits events such as the riots of 2011, the build up to the 2016 referendum and the divisive fallout from Brexit. It’s a brave subject given the complexity of issues that feed into it, and Coe has (perhaps inevitably) had to opt for a broad canvas on which to set his narrative. Ranging geographically from London to the Midlands and occasionally beyond, the narrative portrays a cross-section of English society and the issues which both divide and unite it. The main characters are Sophie – an academic specialising in fine art who finds herself at the sharp end of woke call-out culture – and her uncle Benjamin who is struggling to put a novel together. Accompanying them as they try to navigate their way through a Britain so ill at ease with itself that members of parliament are attacked and killed in the street, are friends, enemies and family members representing all ends of the political spectrum – from Helena (Sophie’s bigoted mother-in-law) to the scowling Corbynista, Corrie.
I have this feeling that we Brits are at our best when we’re laughing at ourselves, and perhaps that’s one of the many things Brexit has stolen from us. It’s certainly one of the points I feel that Coe makes very well in this book: that what we once took for granted as British values – tolerance, fair play, the capacity for inclusive dialogue, the ability to take everything with a substantial pinch of salt – have all been called into question or even trampled on by a constant toxic stream of abuse and mud-flinging both in the press and social media. If anything characterises the Brexit ‘debate’ it is, in my opinion, a failure to truly engage with or understand other’s fears or arguments.
I felt there were a couple of places where Coe’s characters became a bit too caricature, or where the analysis felt a bit flat (I happen to believe, for example, that the 2011 riots were about more than the issue of race relations)* But I applaud any attempt to take a measured look at what has become one of the most complex and divisive issues of our time. Coe dives deep into the sense of deep-seated frustration and anger which channelled the leave vote, while his novel is equally sympathetic to those who felt loss and anxiety over the country’s decision to leave the EU. And to be honest, at a time when the country seems to have become so polarised that one wonders if it will ever be possible to unite it, Coe’s approach is exactly what is needed.
*In ‘“Shoplifters of the World Unite” – Slavoj Žižek on the Meaning of the Riots’ London Review of Books 19th August 2011, Žižek points to the fact that the rioters might be best described as ‘disaffected consumers’. Fed with images of luxury and wealth which they were unable to obtain, he argues that the riots were fuelled by decades of pent-up frustration. And how else to explain one young rioter’s claim: “Having the nicest clothes … the updated things, the big tellies, the fancy phones … People with the Ralph, the Gucci, the Nike, the trainers, the Air Forces … it’s all the style, just everyone wants it. If you don’t have it you’re just going to look like an idiot. Like, that’s how we see it, you just look like an idiot. It’s a fashion thing.” http://www.guardian.co.uk./uk/2011/dec/05/summer-riots-consumerist-feasts-looters