Review: Middle England by Jonathan Coe


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.”



An English Woman in Poland. What the Referendum Means to Me

So I never really meant to get political on my blog. This is primarily a platform for my fiction and reviews. However, I’m not a big fan of Facebook, and it’s hard to vent true spleen in 140 characters on twitter. Consequently, this seems to be the only option available to me.

I sent off my application for a postal vote today. I wanted to make damn sure I get my ballot paper for the referendum. I mean, I’ll be honest, this is a question of pure self-interest. I don’t harbour grand ideals about the restoration of sovereignty – which, incidentally in an era of corporate influence and globalised power structures I take with a pinch of salt anyway. Nor is it based on some ridiculous notion that the British economy will thrive the minute we leave the EU. If characters like Sir Philip Green are anything to go by, we’re more than capable of ruining our economy without any help from Brussels.

No, the reason why I’ll be voting to remain is simple. I’m a British national living in Europe. One of an estimated 1.26 million according to International Business Times. And let’s just say, my future looks very, very uncertain if Britain comes out of the EU.

I have taught English in Poland since 2003, which I’m sure Brexit supporters would say makes me very much a part of the problem. But then, you see, I’m one of those weirdos who believes that isolationism and a refusal to engage in dialogue is not really the way to go about solving Europe’s problems – whether those problems be economic or geopolitical. No, I’m of the strange idea that communication promotes development, promotes understanding and eases rather than intensifies conflict. Which is why I’m proud to be a foreign language teacher.

I’ve built a life for myself in Europe on the understanding that I am, well, a citizen of an EU country and therefore protected by certain rights which include freedom of movement. If Brexit happens, that certainty is gone. Having worked in Poland since 2004 without a visa, I may find I need one. This would almost certainly leave me without the job security I currently enjoy. After thirteen years of building my life in this country! I have a mortgage here, for god’s sake. I have a full time job, a bank account, friends who I’ve known for years. And my partner who, until now, has never had any problems visiting my family in the UK – because believe it or not, not all Poles actually want to live in Britain – could now find it increasingly difficult to do so. But then, I suppose, for Brexit campaginers, the break up of family ties is fairly low on their list of priorities. After all, if they haven’t yet come up with a realistic economic model for post-Brexit Britain, they’re hardly going to be scratching their heads worrying about the fate of a few British/European families being split up.

But worrying about the potential loss of all I’ve worked towards as a Brit abroad is not the only example of my self-indulgent, self-interested rant. Because, on top of being an ex-pat, I have the temerity to be an academic. And Brexit is bad, bad news for academia.

Why? Well, first of all it could well lead to a severance of Britain from the Bologna process, which I have personally been a beneficiary of. The Bologna process was set up to ensure that academic structures are commensurate across Europe. Therefore, when I started my doctorate, my MA from a British university was immediately accepted as the equivalent of a Polish MA. This not only meant that I cut out tiresome red tape, it also gives me the right to work in Polish universities, as it would do in other parts of Europe. My experience was very different to that of my American colleague, who was forced to jump through any number of bureaucratic hoops in order to prove that his MA was also a valid starting point for a doctorate.

But it’s not just systems like the Bologna process which are valuable and which could ultimately be lost if the UK leaves. As over 150 members of the Royal Society including Stephen Hawking have pointed out, Brexit would be, in academic terms, an utter disaster. As Hawking and his colleagues assert:

“If the UK leaves the EU and there is a loss of freedom of movement of scientists between the UK and Europe, it will be a disaster for UK science and universities…Investment in science is as important for the long-term prosperity and security of the UK as investment in infrastructure projects, farming or manufacturing; and the free movement of scientists is as important for science as free trade is for market economics.” (Brexit would be a Disaster, The Guardian)

Research is about dialogue. It’s about fostering collegiate atmospheres – not just within national borders, but globally. Those conduits of information, that engagement with other European nations for academic purposes and the securing of European investment in both science and the humanities is what underpins our position as the world’s fifth largest economy. But then, why trust the likes of Hawkings when we have authorities like Boris Johnson and George Galloway to help us reach an informed opinion?

There is one other rather pressing reason which will prompt me to vote remain. I have lived in Poland for long enough to realise that it’s a country which has a complex and sometimes toxic relationship with the past. But there’s one aspect of that relationship which I take very seriously, and that is Poland’s attitude to Russia. While, pre-Ukraine conflict, there seemed to be a sickening toadying on the part of the West towards Putin – presumably because of the scope and scale of Russian investment – the Poles were, well, sceptical about such a cosy arrangement to say the least. The perception that Russian imperialism had not disappeared but had rather manifested itself afresh pretty much informed the way the country conducted its relations with its eastern neighbour.

It’s interesting to observe that one of the few people outside the UK who is rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of Brexit is Putin. As, for example, a recent article in Newsweek asserts:

“While Putin himself has not publicly said anything about a Brexit, the Russian embassy in London recently seemed to weigh into the Brexit debate—denigrating Prime Minister David Cameron on Twitter. One tweet accused Cameron’s In-campaign of being unable to ‘win the argument on its merits.’” (EU Referendum: Brexit, Newsweek)

Putin’s cynical campaign of displacement and upheaval in Syria has, of course, the long term aim of destabilising Europe’s borders. The arrival of hundreds of thousands of refugees places financial and political strain on a union which has opposed his policies of intolerance and aggression through condemnation and sanctions. Whether a British government would have the will to offer meaningful critique of Putin’s strategies when so much Russian money is invested in the UK is another question. What matters with regard to Brexit, however, is that at the very moment when the Russian President is playing fast and loose with foreign policy, Britain threatens to pull up the drawbridge and leave Europe to its fate. And as a Brit now living in a country which borders Russia, the consequences of such a breakdown in European solidarity are, quite frankly, frightening.

So, if it’s self-interest that motivates me to vote remain, then so be it. Because beneath all the grandiose talk of reclaiming sovereignty and bolstering the British economy, that’s pretty much all the Leave campaign is about too. The very idea that a hypocrite like Iain Duncan Smith is acting out of altruism makes me want to projectile vomit into my laptop. The fact that the likes of Johnson and Duncan Smith can make political capital out of an issue which is of such importance reminds me of how little honesty there is left in politicians. If British citizens in Europe are going to be dumped on from a height, we owe it to ourselves to make our case.