Devolutionary British Fiction 1930-Present Week 10: Jonathan Coe

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Devolutionary British Fiction 1930-Present
Week 10: Jonathan Coe (1961-) The Rotters’ Club (2001)

Coe’s sixth novel. See autobiographical material online at

Page numbers refer to my edition, Penguin 2001.
Coe uses a variety of narrative styles and techniques in the novel, as well as several narrators and various narrative perspectives. Central one is Benjamin Trotter. Also Doug, Phillip, Lois, Bill and other minor characters.
Stories are often told to other characters. Use of Letters; ‘Found’ or rediscovered journal entries, stories, speeches, interviews, etc.
The ‘inset narrative’ is used several times (story within a story), and indeed the novel is, one could argue, one large ‘inset narrative’ (see John Mullan for more detail on this feature – look at the course bibliography, or go direct to and search for ‘mullan coe’), framed as it is by Sophie telling the story to Patrick (two characters who will of course reappear in The Closed Circle, the sequel that was planned during the writing of the novel – that has since been published) in Berlin. Why Berlin? Could be that it is a classic example of a city that has undergone massive transformation since the Second World War – especially in politics – Berlin is the city that emerged from the failure of the Soviet Bloc project – and now of course houses the restaurants, cafes and clubs of the neo-capitalist urban scene. It is also, however, a city undergoing restless change, just like London, as Sophie remarks to Patrick at the close. We could be being invited to compare it to what happens in the main narrative with Birmingham and with several post-industrial British cities. The novel again, remember is what Mullan calls a ‘period novel’, written after the event, deliberately asking the reader to compare the differences between 21st century Britain and the Britain of the 1970’s – a decade of change, dashed hopes, severe and radical social, political, economic and cultural transformation. Berlin seems a shiny, technologically adept city, yet one that is unfinished (like the story will be). Compare the clarity of vision from the revolving restaurant offering a view of the new Reichstag – a symbol of the ‘New’ Europe, a cultural and geo-political entity that Britain in the seventies was still some distance from, despite the joining of the European Common Market in 1973. We are also told that Berlin offers a ‘crane-filled skyline’, an ‘ever-changing work-in-progress’. Similar to the development of Britain and British history in the novel.

Fate is a central aspect of Coe’s storytelling - the characters in the novel have to negotiate the possibility of seemingly random events and meetings dictating the way that their lives fan out. Sophie and Patrick’s parents’ meeting is one such example. ‘It was an odd situation they had been thrown into’, we are told, on p.2.

Their function as the narrative frame is also used to exemplify the theme of historical distance. The way that historical events evolve, and how new generations recollect the ‘central events’ or the formational moments of the past – public and private events, significant and insignificant ones, is significant. Coe deliberately uses two characters who were not even alive during the period, and who can recollect it only hazily. Their meeting will provide them with the chance to think about where they have came from, two kids that vaguely remember Thatcher (who’s ensuing presence looms over the novel like a colossus – the narrative ends with her coming to power at the close of the decade), and John Major, who are Blair’s generation: ‘It was hard to know where to start. The era they were discussing seemed to belong to the dimmest recesses of history…. a world without mobiles or videos or Playstations or even faxes.’ The point of this may be to force the present day reader to think about how Britain has evolved to the moment in the present. It also warns us to think about the perspective of the teller – these consumer items may be significant objects to Sophie and Patrick. Sophie’s story may be subjectively tinged. Occasionally, we are reminded of the contemporary frame and invited to think about the retrospective distance from the ‘actual’ events that constitute the main narrative. In Pt II, Ch 6, for example, Doug’s recollection of Harding, the theme is ‘what they most regret leaving behind or what they are happiest to see the back of.’(174) A clear invitation to the reader to consider the same. Ben’s ‘epiphany’ narrative at the end might also demonstrate this (if you agree he does seem to become more aware).
The significance of the 70’s, commonly perceived by modern historians as a crucial decade in British transformation, will thus be perceived through a novel, an alternative historico-fictional format. Coe is also anti-nostalgia (against the kind of seventies nostalgia industry that flourished in British – and American – culture in the nineties) – and this is why there is a kind of warning about things being ‘vague’ to the two characters that open the text – the novel seems to be claiming a position about the way we need to be circumspect when analysing the past, especially its significance to the present. This is maybe why we are asked to go ‘backwards…Back to a country that neither of us would recognize, probably, Britain 1973.’ The pun on ‘backwards’ – meaning in time as well as (technological/social/cultural/economic) development, is interesting…. as the novel will ask implicitly, to what degree has Britain ‘progressed’ since then?
The Opening of Part One – the Trotter family sit by the coal-effect fire, ‘weak light from a pair of wrought-iron standard lamps’. The illumination theme is established – through the fog of the past, a family come to light. Yet this weak light is testament to the power-shortages that characterised the decade, with its series of strikes and economic crises. ‘These are brown times’ it is remarked later (15) and we are asked to measure the comparative prosperity of contemporary Britain. Note the drizzly night, contrasting to the bright starry night of the future that opened the text. A classic domestic scene, yet the father is missing – the functional/dysfunctional/incomplete family will (like other novels) again become a theme. Benjamin is doing his history homework. There is an ambivalent, perhaps even ominous tone to Sophie’s narration: ‘it’s not an easy one to tell the story of my family’, she claims, beginning her tale in ‘the dark promise of an English winter,’(10) a curious choice of words. What is intimated by ‘dark promise’? A nod to the cliché of the actual ‘winter of discontent’ that closes the central narrative, in 1979?

‘Long periods of silence were common’ in this family.

The notion of private perspectives on the world, measured against public, shared events. The world of the teenager is one in which there is a mixture of naivety and gradual experience. Coe uses this schoolboy mindset to open out the question about how much we know of the structuring forces of the wider world, of significant social and economic events. Each boy (and girl, even the adults) is absorbed in some personal project of their own, whether it is books, bands, affairs, personal columns, etc. Clear though, that the novel seeks to ensure that the events of the wider world will either directly or indirectly affect the lives of the characters – the Birmingham pub bomb is the most obvious example, but the gradual deterioration and closure of the Longbridge Leyland plant, the general class war, racial tensions, etc, are equally significant. Lois, we are told, ‘did want to see the world…a universe existed beyond the confines of Longbridge, beyond the terminus of the 62 bus route, beyond Birmingham, beyond England even.’(11) Later, Bill will claim that ‘everyone who lives in Birmingham is affected by Longbridge. You can’t get away from that.’(238) - and he extends what is happening there as part of a wider historical class struggle that ‘cuts across national borders and it cuts through the different races as well. This is a very important point and it is one of the most difficult to get across to the workforce as a whole.’(241)
Paul (who will become a New Labour MP in The Closed Circle is a truly precocious child. His mockery of The Daily Mail’s fawning copy on the Royal family (‘platitudinous codswallop’, 13) is interesting, from the contemporary perspective, where we are several other Royal Weddings down the line, the majority of which (including the one here, of Princess Anne and Capt. Mark Philips) ended in divorce and unhappiness. This attitude of mockery towards the Royal Family, especially from the next generation, is typical of the way that Britain will shift its attitudes towards the bastions (‘the certainties’) of British life, and traditional British culture. The 60’s effected this antipathy towards the old, static structures of Britain, and the 70’s will accelerate the process (The Sex Pistols God Save the Queen is just around the corner). Paul seeks the conservative reaction to his mockery that he knows his mother will provide. Note also, incidentally, his use of adjectives like ‘pukerocious’, a small indication of the colloquial tone – of youthful use of language – this teenage tendency to exaggerate enthusiasm for that which is in fact rather irrelevant in the grand scheme of things, will occur again and again in the book – and will become far more prominent in the new ‘British’ Literature and Culture.
Mullan notes Coe’s use of hindsight, retrospect and prolepsis (the anticipation of future events), and there are several remarks made through the contemporary narrative frame, that serve to compare then and now. Take the meeting between management and workers that opens Ch2, ‘the days before men learned to discuss their feelings.’(14) This meeting will introduce the question of class difference, and again the proleptic element in Jack’s remarks – ‘You know this tells us something about the country we live in today. …Britain in the 1970’s. The old distinctions don’t mean anything any more do they?’ – is designed to make us judge from hindsight. Is Blair’s Britain, for example, fee of class-distinctions? The industrial disputes of the 70’s were key to forming what many see as the beginning of the end for Britain as a heavy-manufacturing economy. The class discussion here is subtly (and comedically) made, in the ordering of peas with steak (a total luxury in the 70’s) and by Bill’s dry remark: ‘you can’t wipe out social injustice by taking the enemy out for chips every so often.’(17) The disputed notion that the class war is over is particularly resonant when we know what Thatcherism will do to change the face of contemporary British class relations, effecting an inequality gap as wide as Britain has ever held, yet at the same time offering a degree of enfranchisement for the upper working-classes and the lower middle-classes – this is why jack’s point about meritocracy in British education is significant (ideally, it is true, in reality it is debatable). ‘There are grievances you see’, claims Bill, ‘Real, proper grievances’ (18). The first section established the major investigative themes of the novel – the flashpoints of life in England in the 70’s: race, class, education, and the ‘condition’ of England, ‘domestic politics’.

Race – the ‘second-generation immigrant cabbie’ who picks the men up after their meal. The degree of his integration into contemporary British life (and always ask yourself what is particularly ‘British’ about certain practices, manners, etc) is interesting (especially when we think back to Moses in The Lonely Londoners). He offers mundane points about his liking Birmingham, yet there is a subtle mention of racism when he mentions his son’s difficulties with bullies at school – a feature that the relation between Richards and Culpepper will explore later. In the next chapter, Harding will ‘black-up’ – something that asks us to consider what distance we have travelled concerning the public expression of racist attitudes in 21st century UK (he is given a punishment essay on ‘racial stereotyping’)(23-24)?
Class: Longbridge – Beginning of Chapter Four – where ‘all was quiet at the Longbridge plant…you didn’t realise how much noise the assembly track made… you got used to it, didn’t notice, until it stopped.’(33) This is of course deeply resonant with the recent near death of production in Midlands’s vehicle construction. Leyland/Rover is often referred to as a classic example of the decline of British heavy manufacturing. Bill was ‘building up an archive, a record of class struggle in which every detail was important and for which future generations of students would be grateful.’(37) ‘It’s not about bloody money’ (40) he claims later – and the spectre of Thatcherism and the move to a consumer-based culture are significant to Bill’s eclipsed convictions (later on he will refuse to accept that he should drive a non-British car – part of the reasons why the industry is eclipsed – the prevalence of foreign competition and the free Market policies of ensuing governments).


Why are there marital ‘issues’ in the novel?

Consider this line, from Pt 2, 18: ‘now more than a year later, neither was showing any signs of coming to an end. In both cases there had been long periods of deadlock and sudden flurries of activity; there had been negotiation, followed by breakdowns in communication; the judgement of external advisers had been sought.’ The industrial dispute is mirrored by the marital disharmony: ‘The difficulties remained intractable.’(259)

Bill and Miriam’s doomed affair – how is this symbolic? She disappears…. reminders of the Fred West horror in the future? Later, Claire suspects Bill has murdered her (223). At the end of Pt 2, Ch12, which tells of three sudden disappearances (or, as the narrator describes them ‘curtailed narratives’) the narrator remarks: ‘Three [Malcolm, Miriam and a Plant Worker] curtailed narratives, then. Three stories, with no connection between them except that they had been truncated, savagely, when their opening chapters had barely been written. All in the same few days. The same few fatal days. What days, those had been for unfinished stories.’ This seems to imply that there are many more stories to tell (as well as being a rather obvious advert to keep reading this novel and the sequel) in this period of British life – and this too will become a recurring idea – that literature needs to pick up the stories of British/English/Brummie life that remain shadowy, untold (see other examples below).

We are often asked to compare a character’s public role with their private foibles. There is a history of slur campaigns in Union history and Gibbs’ letter (35-36) is typical of this. Bill’s ‘morality’ will be judged next to his social and political sincerity in the struggle as a shop steward. This is important, as those in power often seek to question the reputation of the unions and their members as ‘corrupt’, thereby advancing their bargaining claims (and not all union members, as is popularly advanced, were ‘reds’ or even labour voters – Roy Slater, who is trying to blackmail Bill is a good example).


The IRA – the notice by the ‘Association of British People’ on the factory noticeboard. ‘REFUSE TO WORK WITH IRISH BASTARD MURDERERS’ – demonstrating the reactionary racialising of the issue – the IRA representing ‘all’ Irishmen (later, ‘bloody catholic killers’, 55). There were many Irish car workers, so this is something of a burning issue for the time – and the pub bomb exacerbates it. This is something, as Bill notes, that holds back the expression of true working-class unity – and the racist leaflet (38-39) is typical of the race issue and racism that contemporary Britain was dealing with throughout the decade (and still is, the racially motivated attack of two Asians (38) similar to attacks that persist in the present – how far have we come, is the implied subtext here). This is ironically dealt with later in Sam’s drunken (proleptic) assertion: I’ll tell you this and I’ll stake my life on it: the Irish business’ll be over – over and done with – two years from now.’(57) Bill reiterates his point about the need to unite race and class later, in his interview with Claire (Pt 2, Ch 16).

The ‘State of the Nation’ issue is prevalent in various discussions in the narrative. Take the parent’s night discussion, Ch 5, where, rather chillingly, the games-master claims Enoch Powell (‘a brummie’) as a ‘scholar and a visionary’ – and even Bill will later express a grudging admiration for Powell’s approach – as ‘something you can at least argue with.’(84) This is measured against the ‘extreme’ (as if Powell’s wasn’t too extreme) racist organisation in the novel. Such a public confession of ‘respect’ towards a now largely reviled and notorious figure questions the changing nature of racial prejudice in Britain since the 70’s.

The novel also compares the attitudes between the classes to the current industrial disputes causing power-cuts. ‘They shook their heads at the scandal of a nation held to ransom by obstreperous, strike-happy miners, the shame of a once great country reduced to measures more often associated with eastern Europe or the third world: power-cuts, petrol rationing, three-day weeks.’(51) Later, Ben will repeat his father’s reaction to the strikes, ‘He almost has a fit every time you mention it to him. Says that strikes are going to destroy this country, like cancer destroys the body.’(171) Hindsight shows us that this is not of course the eventual outcome, although the situation is exaggerated by politicians (and anxious managers untrained in modern industrial relations) to install a certain fear and anxiety in the populace in order to appear electable. The Historian Nick Tiratsoo has written an interesting chapter on the 70’s (see your class handout), claiming that much of the negative image of the decade in the popular imagination has been the result of a propaganda campaign by the far right to install Thatcherite ideology as the one to vanquish all the ‘problems’ of the past. The way that the novel is aware of the level of ‘apocalyptic’ exaggeration is interesting from this perspective. It is clear that not everyone (despite the middle-class setting) is about to become totally destitute. The rise of the middle-classes, however, in response to the widespread perception that the country was ‘going to the dogs’, is one of the key elements of the decade – crucial in the installation of Thatcher at its close.

The naïve, young person’s perspective is evinced by Phillip and Ben’s absorption in their own small, precious world. The series of questions (59) about Berlin, Watergate, The IRA, powercuts, etc is typical of the way Coe wants us to realise the function of greater political events on ‘ordinary’ lives. Ben’s wall has ‘a detailed map of Middle Earth, whose geography he and Phillip knew more intimately than that of the British Isles.’(58) The review of Tales from Topographic Oceans in the next chapter and the story of the forgotten trunks are typical of the utter importance of such issues to the adolescent schoolboy. Don’t think by this, that I mean that these events are unimportant – on the contrary, we are asked to think about how the education system produces and installs certain social and political attitudes in those who may become influential in public life in the future.


Coe also demonstrates the shift to a far more accessible cultural world of consumption in 21st century Britain (that the 1980’s will do so much to generate). A world away from Blue Nun, Hors d’oeuvres of salt and vinegar crisps in Tupperware boxes…

*Ben’s conversation with Roll-up Reg is another example of the insistence of the fractious political climate from which Ben seems a little divorced (although the irony here is that the bomb that kills Malcolm – in the next chapter - will bring politics to the domestic situation in the Trotter household. The socialist Reg claims he has ‘to wake up sonny, sooner or later. You’ve got to wake up to what’s happening in this country.’(99) The notion of Richard Branson as an emerging figure of prominence is interesting. Is he an ‘idealist’ as Malcolm claims, or is he the classic example of the new British super-capitalist, profiting from the consumer-economy? We judge this from the present.

Thursday Nov 21st 1974.

What is the function of the bomb to Coe’s plot? Why does he place it where it is?

‘They were as close to each other, and as close to happiness, as it is possible for two people to be.’(104) There is an obvious element of thwarted potential here, of an unlikely unification of two apparently unsuited parties in a society characterised by splits and factions. Malcolm’s death seems to scrub out this potential. After this, Britain changes, some would say, irrevocably.


Benjamin would only ever be a dissident by proxy.’(70)

What do you think of Ben’s role in the book? Why is he given a central chunk of the narration? Consider, for example, his point at the beginning of Part Two, Ch 1 (‘The Very Maws of Doom’): ‘Sometimes I feel that I am destined always to be offstage whenever the main action occurs. That God has made me victim of some cosmic practical joke, by assigning me little more than a walk-on part in my own life. Or sometimes I feel that my role is simply to be a spectator to other people’s stories, and always to wander away at the most important moment…’(107) (Benjamin)
A nod to metafiction here, with the narrator-character (close to the author as a teenager, as Coe has admitted) referring to the terms of his own practice and involvement in storytelling – and he is about to tell us a story (with ‘a version of the ending’ he tells us – another story within a story within a story) of his Danish holiday. We could read this as part of the novel’s overall attempt to represent private domestic lives in the backdrop of a turbulent historical context – and show how these events impinge, however indirectly, on ordinary lives – a standard element of the novel as a genre, since its inception. Ben is no ‘hero’, and so he is not really present at what he may perceive as ‘the main action’ (although his father’s role as a manager is quite significant in the overall pattern of industrial disputes). Despite not being ‘present’ is family have been directly affected by the IRA bomb; they are also affected by changes in education, by industrial disputes, and even by international business alliances (the reason they manage to get to Denmark – the BMW connection). The text here throws the question back – what exactly is the ‘main action’? This is furthered by the fact that a teenager would also tend to exaggerate this idea – and his use of language demonstrates this – a teenager seeks the kind of imagined excitement of fame, witnessing great events, etc – think of Ben’s ‘symphony’, etc. What is made apparent is the degree to which the ‘main’ events of contemporary British history are affecting the lives of all individuals. And this is built out to events beyond Britain.
The mini-theme, of establishing a narrative, of the very point of telling a story, is elaborated at the end of this section (126-129), when Ben ruminates on the limits of what he can tell us, and this leads him to a further digression on the purpose of narrative (128). The story we are eventually informed comes from papers of Ben’s found later. Why, then, include it? Is it, as Ben says of The Man of the Hill section in Fielding’s Tom Jones a ‘curious, lengthy digression which seems to have nothing to do with the main narrative but is in fact its cornerstone’?
The Denmark section, Part Two, Ch 1. Why is this story (these stories?) included? They seem at first hand to have little bearing on the main events and themes of the rest of the narrative. Can you think of any possible connections?
Obvious one is Anglo-German relations – the war is still (and will remain) a prevalent memory in people’s minds. The families have not met previously. Here they meet on ‘neutral ground’ – question of Europe too is significant here, possibly (Britain joins the EEC in 1973, a much disputed political event). Culturally, Britain is being more and more influenced by Europe.
This section is about reactionary and lingering sense of historical injury and the reproduction of prejudice (which as we have seen already is established as a theme in the novel – class, race, nationality and gender prejudice is rife in this England). The Danish brothers’ automatic bullying of Rolf and their eventually murderous behaviour is set against another backdrop (an inset narrative) of their own mother’s persecution as a Jew by the Nazis in WWII.
This begins with a territorial claim – ‘Hey! Germans! This is our back garden.’(111)
‘There was something untamed and out of control about the Danish boys, it was clear: some kind of instability which made them unpredictable and prone (in Jorgen’s case) to sudden acts of aggression.’(113)
Consider the symbol of the ocean and the landscape where they bathe (114). ‘A beginning and an ending with no distinction between them, just furrows of clear water running together in wave upon wave of foamy, promiscuous couplings.’(114) Notion of possible union (recalling Lois and Malcolm), of a timeless, natural, different phenomenon. Possibility of open territory, new ground, yet equally dangerous – ominous for the story to unfold.
This section also installs a wider awareness of history (another theme in the main narrative). The grandmother’s tale begins ‘I don’t know what they teach you in your history lessons these days…’(116)
Her tale about the unhappy relations between Emil, Inger and the Nazi Officer Bernhard – a story of violent domestic splits – love and communion thwarted by prejudicial violence prosecuted at an individual level backed by the statutes of War and violent Nationalism (remember what has just happened to Malcolm in the pub – a story we might expect to have continued, rather than this seemingly illogical narrative jump). A terrifying choice is made that seems driven by fate. The grandmother remarks: ‘After all she had been through, we knew, Julius and I, that our daughter would never be able to lead a completely normal life. The loss she suffered was very great. To be so young and so very deeply in love and then to have that love. Uprooted, in a word, swept away by forces over which you can have no possible control, historical forces . . . You can never recover from something like that, never reconcile yourself to it.’ 123 – and this obviously has a direct parallel to Lois – it gives a broader historical setting to the power of prejudice and violence and its recycling throughout history. The challenge here is implicit in the last two sentences. The novel as we know was written at a time when the Irish peace process was well underway, and matters of recovery and reconciliation are important. Again, as in MacLaverty, we have this test of personal forgiveness measured against public events. (Later, Emily’s letter will tell us the whole gory truth, noting ‘nobody really knows how deep those kinds of wounds go, how long they are likely to last. Sometimes they never heal at all Pt 2, Ch 24, 309…’a bomb…. a bomb can do terrible things to a human body…you’ve no idea. A supplementary point to this may be the recent terrorist events in London (and this can be connected to Kureishi as you will see) – another example of unsuspecting bombs maiming private lives. The boy’s violent behaviour is clearly a result of their wish in some sense for revenge – the fascinating thing is to see the tolerant, peaceful Rolf – the butt of all their joke’s and acts – finally crack and resort to the same racist epithets: ‘Well at least my mother isn’t a filthy Jew, like yours was.’ The point here is that Rolf says this without thinking – ‘instinctive’ prejudice has been met with more of the same and the cycle continues.
The next chapter advances these interconnected themes of racism, storytelling and raising consciousness, with a discussion between Doug, Ben and Phillip concerning the racist element of Lord of the Rings (an intervention recently made on National Radio and in The Birmingham Post by our own Dr Shapiro). Doug, who is the most socially and politically ‘aware’ of the group, provides a sharp argument concerning the need to think about the ways in which racism is subtly and apparently innocently embedded into English culture (this follows the Clapton ‘RACIST’ episode that opens the chapter). Philip shies away from the confrontation, claiming ‘this racism thing is beginning to obsess you’ – yet this is exactly the point here – Race is a crucial area of cultural and political debate in Britain, and especially Birmingham in the 70’s. The need to be aware of local (and, by implication, personal) issues, instances and responsibilities is a theme in the novel, and is linked to that of maturity and increasing awareness. The things we are brought up with and have great attachment to, are part of culture and open to alternative interpretations, like any other cultural artefacts. The fact that both Tolkien and Powell come from Brum is a point made none too loosely. What does Coe want us to examine here?
How then do you interpret the section on Tolkien and Ben’s visit to his grandparents’ house, Pt II, Ch2, p134-135? How does this emphasis on Tolkien’s locality and his transformation of the area into a pastoral utopia rest next to the central narrative? How do you read Ben’s thought at the end of his clear evocation of a pastoral England, that ‘It was a belief from which he at once recoiled and drew strength’ (135)?
Later, Ben reminds himself of his ‘paralyzing nostalgia’ (250) – clearly a tension in the characters between the need to develop and outgrow their idealist fantasies and to retain them, reflected in the same political argument for the country. Britain is torn between traditionalism and modernism. The complex question again, of unity and diversity, brief moments when the ‘nation’ seems united: Consider the passage, for example, at the end of Pt 2, Ch19, pp274-275: ‘It happened in the middle of the Morecambe and Wise Show . . . seemed fraught, complex and uncertain.’(275) Ben thinks of a moment of everyone in Britain being instantaneously united, ‘one family’. In what way does this encapsulate the themes of the entire text? Clear that this is again Ben’s youthful idealism being tested – question is, does everyone watch these shows, shows we are usually informed by the media that ‘capture the essence of the nation’s hearts, etc? Or is Britain at this moment ‘frozen’? Is this a snapshot of Britain in the past, before it changes demographically, culturally, etc? This is neatly extended (and answered later on, Pt 2, Ch20, p282) when Ben tries and fails to enthuse Richards about the sketch. Richards doesn’t understand, ‘his family didn’t watch television on Christmas night, he said, and besides, ‘I’ve never quite seen it with those two.’ (282)
The narrative in many ways analyses the development of Ben’s political and cultural awareness. He is amazed that people in the place he goes every year for a holiday – Wales - can be ‘fierce nationalists’, who ‘can support the IRA as well.’(347). This amazes Ben, ‘how could this possibly be? Was the world even more complicated than he had imagined – weren’t there even any arguments with only one side to them? How on earth did people like Doug keep hold of their certainties, their clearly defined, confidently held political positions, in a world like this?’ The ensuing diatribe by Cicely’s uncle – about the legacy of English colonialism in the British Isles and abroad (pp350-352) ‘a nation of butchers and vagabonds,’(352) is a classic ‘test’ for its listener – in which a historically mapped awareness lends conviction to a present day situation (anti-imperialist, pro-devolutionary tendencies at home and abroad.) These are of course difficult questions that Britain has to get through in order to guarantee a future spirit of respect and co-operation – a factor that is relevant at the time of writing (2001) - and this point is made through Ben’s following conversation with Cicely, about love being ‘ a condition in which people help each other to see the truth about themselves’ (354) – and we are reminded that Glyn’s Welshness is also a bit disingenuous, so he too must face up to the chauvinism of his convictions.

Doug’s visit to London to the NME (155-) – is this episode – with ‘the preposterously named Ffion ffoulkes’ (164) absurd? ‘It was approaching 4.30 and night was falling fast. The shadowy, looming bulks of countless brutalist tower blocks, their office windows dotted with squares and oblongs of strident neon light, made the city seem even stranger, even less hospitable; a concrete encyclopaedia of hidden stories, unguessable shards of secret life.’(155) 165 – Doug ‘became enamoured of the upper-classes.’ (165)

These unguessable shards are, it seems, particularly relevant to a novel about the state of the nation – perhaps admitting that there are potentially many stories to tell. It also corresponds to the fact that so many of these characters are conducting private affairs – romantic and otherwise.

Also Issues of class, racism, imminence of new popular culture (esp punk and reggae), of the important (political and associatively sleazy) position of leisure magazines in Britain (156).

The theme of heightened education, awareness of culture and cultural change is advanced through various media is a prevalent one in the novel. As is the power that the new media will muster as the decade rolls on. The interview between Claire and Bill Anderton for the school magazine (pt 2, Ch16) (a microcosm, for Bill, of all that is demonstrated by private ownership – rotters’ clubs: ‘if you’ve got control of language, then you’ve got power.’241) is an example – and we are slyly reminded at the close of the interview, that its contents are printed in ‘an edited version’, an example of the power of British Private education invested in a particular class ideology – the magazine would not print sentiments like ‘get rid of nationalism and you’ve solved ninety percent of the problems in the world.’(243) The opening of chapter (II, 3) sees Barbara reading the apparent inanities of Woman magazine while secretly deciphering an overblown, pretentious love letter from the art teacher. The 70’s also see significant shifts in women’s rights – at work and at home. Later, Sam will seek to learn vocabulary to empower himself in his marriage (260, ‘Energize yourself with verbal vitamins’). This emphasis – on things being edited, arranged, versioned - is made repeatedly in the novel - - often in the form of notes, etc at the beginning of chapters (consider the NB to Lois’s diary, Pt 2, ch26). Indeed, the power of the media and its tightening grip on political and governmental power structures becomes more apparent throughout. At the close, Ben’s monologue notes the tendency to exaggerate in the newspapers (especially picked up by the Americans) about the condition of England in the 70’s(375) – a point picked up by Tiratsoo. Coe’s novel seeks to redress the balance here as well, challenging the reader not to react in the same way the stereotypes of the seventies would provoke.
For example: Pt 2, Ch 6: Doug’s ‘valedictory speech’ at the Millennium.

Read from ‘People forget about the 1970’s. They think it was all about wide collars and glam rock…the West Midlands, back in 1976.’ pp176-178

Why is Harding’s ‘parody’ of the National Front leaflet so powerful?

The ‘Arthur Pusey-Hamilton MBE’ Letters? 192-195; 235 The challenge here is to establish the degree of spoof or parody? Is this a close satire of the actual thoughts of the upper-class establishment figure? If so, the parody becomes uncomfortable.

This chapter is about realism and idealism. Of the shock tactics now taking hold of English popular culture, in comedy and music, from Monty Python to The Sex Pistols. Harding’s speech is on the very edge of parody and satire, built on offence, making the experience uncomfortable for its audience - ’it became just about possible to regard the whole thing as an elaborate piss-take.’ The chapter is also about the transition from schoolboy idealism to a more manic, less orthodox, genuinely realist form of cultural and political awareness, symbolised from the move from indulgent rock symphonies to the anarchic energy and cynical rejectionism of punk. The move towards Thatcherism at the close is indicative of what Doug sees as the death of the traditional socialist dream of redistribution in Britain (evinced by the inspiration the new generation of kids gets from Harding’s Tolkienesque parody of ‘the maws of doom’ as a right-wing fear mongering phrase). Is Coe connecting punk to the ‘new breed of Tory’? ‘anti-community, anti-consensus’? (181). Remember it is Paul who is singing ‘Anarchy in the UK’, spoiling the rustic expectancy of ‘some fine old English folk song’ on Ben and Phillip’s country walk. Paul mocks ‘the last-gasp efforts of our socialist leaders.’(211) Culpepper will also remind us of the increasing private company sponsorship of British Institutions (such as his letter about the Boat Race) that will progress as the decade continues and well into the present (the recent debate over the removal of cricket to Sky TV is an example).
Analyse Culpepper’s last two paragraphs of his letter, concerning traditions and his reiteration of Paul’s Thatcherite/New Labour slogan ‘modernize – modernize or die’. How does this read in line with the events in the narrative? Does this characterise any recent events or changes in recent British history? (End Pt2, Ch13, p. 230)
Clearly a contradictory and sinister idea – that ‘modernisation’ is the best way to preserve traditions. Culpepper argues himself into a corner, does he not, when he claims that only those who are aware of traditions know that radical behaviour is the only way to preserve them? Coe seems to be being ironic here. ‘Modernise’ is of course a deeply ill-defined notion – what can he mean by it? Remember too that Culpepper is racially motivated. See also the ‘leaked’ letter about the way to ‘modernise’ the school – as a business (Pt 2, Ch 21)

The function and effect of the ‘13,000 word sentence’ that opens section 3?

The opening is a philosophy of ‘the moment’ – as small, seemingly mundane events that characterise part of a memory for the life of an individual. This seems to be Benjamin breaking free from his tendency to conformity, recollecting in a free style, unhindered by conventional punctuation (it’s also a parody of the Molly Bloom episode from Joyce’s Ulysses – that we are told Phillip has been reading in the pub).

The novel is in many ways about the relation between degrees of naivety and innocence and cynicism and experience of private and public events. Ben’s provocative reflection: ‘what does it really matter, that’s what I want to know, what does it really matter if you don’t know what’s going on in the world around you, what difference does it make, we can’t change things anyway, nothing that Cicely does or I do or even Doug for that matter is ever going to change the world’ (376). How are we supposed to react to this statement? Is it simply an illustration of Ben’s character or is Coe seeking a wider discussion?
The fact that Ben decides to go to Handsworth is an example of his need for further experience – part of the recurring theme of seeking out different areas of one’s own locale to advance one’s knowledge – he visits Steve, who has become a ‘victim’ of the British Public School system and of racism in England in general. Ben later experiences a historical and political awakening of sorts, as to his class position, the effect of his schooling system: ‘I get the feeling we have lost Steve’ he claims, to History? Politics? (387) He seems to have sympathy, but the novel also wants to test his ability to act differently from how he has been conditioned – and emphasises this later when his position at the bank means he can refuse a bank loan (he does) to a company that would directly help Steve out. What is implied here?
Earlier, he goes to find him in Handsworth: ‘…the number of black people you see on the streets or all the different languages you can see in the shop windows or the different kinds of food for sale…. yes, I admit it, it was like a foreign country to me but I liked it for that very reason, and found myself thinking how strange it was, what an indictment, that I could share the same city with these people and yet I had no contact with them in all my eighteen years.’(384) – Here we have a reversal of roles, in some ways, of the kind of outsider experiences that the central characters have in Rhys and Selvon. There is a similarity in that Ben is made sharply aware of his different background, ethnicity, etc – although a key difference is that he is white, middle-class, non-immigrant, and he is discovering the new, ‘other’ Britain, the Britain that will come to the fore in several novels next term when we deal with the experience of multicultural British society. Here it is obviously ghettoised, closed off from what he thinks is British life to that point in his young life.

At the close of Ben’s narrative, the country ‘hangs in the balance’ (389), although the retrospective perspective ensures that we treat all this section on Thatcher with ironic distance…and the real ending asks us to think of any possible consequences – because, it is both a ‘happy’ one and an unresolved one…What do you make of the ending? It is clearly an invitation to keep reading….


137 – ‘the English experimental pop groups’

146 ‘Elitism’s a good thing’ (Paul)

173 The Rotters’ Club

185 – Richards’ family history (connect to selvon) in Interview 185

225 safety in the plant – industrial accident

235 ‘Does Mr Anderton not realize that we are fighting a war in Ireland – a war designed to protect legitimate British interests?’ P-Hamilton – what are ‘legitimate British interests’?

239 Are you a Marxist?

253 – Phillip exploring Birmingham’s canals – potential of brum for further untold stories, new territory – later, he sells his guitar to ‘add to his growing library of volumes about ‘hidden’ Birmingham, its history and architecture.’ 258 + 308

254 Ben and Harding discuss Vaughan Williams ‘They talked about the London symphony and wondered whether it would be possible for anybody to write a ‘Birmingham symphony’ of the same grandeur and resonance.’ 254 again, the notion of an English storyteller – someone who interviews and records the lives of the provinces

256’’wow, but its so beautiful and so English….’The English are a very violent people.’ 257

262’These were bad times to be a socialist, he thought. He could feel all the old certainties slipping away.’(262) + later we are told of Bill’s defeatism (389)

263 – the ‘riot’ at the speech by Jayaben Desai

265’He who governs, or wants to govern, must be skilled in the science of employing words.’(265) – A point made later about the power of shop stewards to martial linguistic power 301

271’the relative certainties of family life’

272 ‘Paul stayed upstairs reading a collection of essays by the economist Milton Friedman’ (272) Paul’s role is to question his brother’s acceptance of tradition and certainty (273)

281 the schoolteacher’s ‘a labour man’ ‘the only way that some people can make their voices heard under the existing political system is by withholding their labour.’(281)

300 Thatcher’s first mention in the text – the letter from the Pakistani worker about her comment on ‘the British people being ‘swamped’ by different cultures.

303 ‘The restructuring of British Leyland was under way’

304 ‘the bitter, market-driven era to come’ – governed by the rotters’ club, the bosses club – privacy is a big thing in the text, given the larger events concerning privatisation

338 cicely’s uncle’s hostility to Ben – his ‘welshness’?

349 ‘I think she rather likes the idea of having no nationality at all.’(349)

392 ‘It’s always easier for upper-class people to see the funny side of things he said, because nothing is ever really important to them, nothing is ever a matter of life and death….

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