Jonathan Coe and Justin Cartwright: Fictional prime time

The British novel, at its best, is engaged, liberal, highly informed, secular, sceptical and above all humane.

Author Jonathan Coe
 
One of the few things that makes life bearable nowadays is that we have so many good novels to comfort us. This profusion of world-class British fiction is something we take for granted. But we are better at it than making cars, fighting wars, playing football or doing the tango. We have talent. 
 
Fiction, as statistics confirm, is booming bigger every year. Newspaper circulations dwindle by 10 per cent per annum. Anglican church attendance, per nave, has probably sunk below the two spinsters cycling through the morning mist about whom John Major used to get dewy-eyed. University philosophy departments are closing. Modern languages departments will accept people with Cs. But English departments turn away more people than they can take in. If you interview applicants, as I did for 30 years, you will find that most of them are banging at your door because they “love literature”, which usually means inspirational novels or novelists.
 
My own belief code, so to call it, was formed in my undergraduate years, during a period in history when D H Lawrence was God. For me, the meaning of life was “affirmed” (we loved that sub-Leavisite word) by the beginning of The Rainbow: the men delving in the rich soil, the women – antennae of the race – mystically regarding the spire on the distant horizon. It made the affirmation stronger that the novel had come to one through the flames of censorship.
 
My brain has never been big enough for Wittgenstein, quantum mechanics or an Althusserian-correct reading of Das Kapital. Deconstruction (like Italian) I can read but not talk. I look at OUP’s Very Short Introduction drum-rack and sigh. Not even if they were shrunk to the size of an intellectual aspirin tablet could I master those subjects.
 
Most of what I know about science comes from science fiction and history from historical romance. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. The British novel, at its best, is engaged, liberal, highly informed, secular, sceptical and above all humane. On the side of life, as we Lawrentians used to say. My long life has been a foretaste of that heaven the Frenchman described – a soft sofa and an endless supply of new novels. I’d thank the owner of heaven, if I believed in him (the English novel largely doesn’t).
 
The two novelists under review are at their strong mid-career points: novels behind them, novels in front of them. Justin Cartwright’s last novel, Other People’s Money, is the best seminar in print on the supranational grand larcency that damn near did for us all in 2008. Having done Mammon, Cartwright has now turned to the vexatious issue of God. Logical.
 
His protagonist, Richard Cathar, was so renamed by his hippie, professionally droppedout father, before he prematurely “shed his vehicle” to join Timothy Leary up there in the infinite. Having taken a brilliant history degree from Oxford and broken up with his partner, Cathar follows the nominal signpost his dad has lumbered him with and sets off to find what happened to the “True Cross”, the last genuine relic of Calvary.
 
The narrative thereafter runs on two lines, denoted by italic and Roman script, respectively. One plotline is a chronicle, which turns into an Ivanhoe-like fantasia, on the life, battles and death of Richard the Lionheart and his campaigns to rescue the Holy Land and the Holy Cross for Christianity.
 
The pivotal scene is a conversation between Cathar and his wise old tutor, who tells him that archaeology and historical research are dead ends – the path to truth is imagination. Write a novel, he advises. Cathar’s quest takes him to Jerusalem, where Christianity began and where the world, when it finally explodes, might well end. In between, he gets a lot of sex and finally finds a mate and some home truths about Dad.
 
I can recommend this book as a good history lesson and two rattling good stories. Most important, it’s a convincing apologia for what it is.
 
Expo 58 offers a different kind of history lesson. Jonathan Coe is the David Kynaston of fiction, forever cranking up his time machine to travel back to some past decade (memorably the 1970s in The Rotters’ Club). His latest title alludes to the 1958 World’s Fair in Belgium where grotesquely – or presciently – Britain chose to construct a pub between the super-potent pavilions of the US and the USSR called the Britannia.
 
Coe, who has two doctorates in literature, is manifestly, at a deep subtextual level, interrogating the Bakhtinian notion of the carnivalesque (I throw that in for anyone contemplating the inevitable PhD on Coe).
 
Coe’s Pooterish hero, Thomas Foley – a selfconfessed deeply confused man – is seconded to Brussels by the Central Office of Information to keep tabs on the Britannia. Off the marital leash – he gets caught up in the great games of the cold war – and adventures ensue. He, too, is gamed, as he ultimately discovers. But, as we used to say in the 1950s, he finally gets his end away. A bit of the other. Something on the side. His oats.
 
When Walter Scott invented the historical romance with Waverley, he subtitled his pioneer work ’Tis Sixty Years Since. It indicates “lifespan”, after which point the eyewitness memory fades away. Coe was born in 1961. In 1958, while Jonathan was still a sparkle in his mother’s eye, I was doing my national service. As Kurt Vonnegut recurrently interjects during Slaughterhouse-Five, “I was there.”
 
The plot hinges on one of the great ignes fatui (along with the Tanganyika groundnut scheme and the Brabazon airliner) of the 1950s. “Zeta” (zero-energy thermonuclear assembly) was proclaimed with screaming tabloid eurekas as a machine – British to its atomic core – that would extract energy from seawater and save the world. And it was so displayed at the Belgian festivities. Halfway through, it was exposed as unscientific bollocks, like Jonathan Swift’s Lagadans trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers.
 
Coe inserts the necessary date markers: the Aldermaston marches, striped Crest toothpaste, Sputnik. And, neatly, the denouement turns on the internal architecture of a Smith’s Crisps packet. The historical fabric is, to my ancient eye, sound. Expo 58 is a jolly good novel; or, if you like, a good jolly novel.
 
Life, alas, is too short to read all the good novels and, who knows, at the rate good fiction is coming out in Britain, eternity might not be long enough. Wallow gratefully. 
 
John Sutherland’s “A Little History of Literature” will be published in October by Yale University Press 
Author Jonathan Coe. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 16 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Syria: The deadly stalemate

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No More Girls and Boys shows the small things that shape children

The BBC2 TV series is validating and dispiriting at the same time. 

Here’s a story we like to tell ourselves. Once upon a time, we were sexist, but then feminism happened and now we’re not sexist anymore. But boys and girls carry on being different because they are different. Male brains are systematising and female brains are empathising, says Simon Baron-Cohen. Boys like blue and girls like pink, say the toy aisles. Men have a “drive for status”, and women have “openness directed towards feelings and aesthetics rather than ideas,” says that bloody Google engineer in his ten-page evo-psych anti-diversity manifesto. And if we are going to live happily ever after, we just have to learn to accept it.

Here are some other stories. “I think boys are cleverer than girls… because they get into president easily don’t they?” “I would describe a girl as being pretty, lipstick, dresses, lovehearts. If a woman has a child, the men have to go to work and earn some money.” “Men are better at being in charge.” “Men are better because they’re stronger and they’ve got more jobs.” All these are things said by year three pupils at Lanesend primary school in the Isle of Wight, both girls and boys, who by the age of seven have thoroughly imbibed the idea that their sex is their fate. All of them are about to take part in an experiment designed to unpick that belief.

That experiment is actually a BBC 2 documentary called No More Boys and Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? Presenter Dr Javid Abdelmoneim finds that the boys are more likely to overestimate their abilities; the girls, to underestimate theirs. Girls are underscoring on confidence; boys, on empathy. Abdelmoneim isn’t buying that this is all down to hormones or different physiques. At seven, boys and girls are evenly matched for strength, and will be until the testosterone surge of puberty has boys building muscle mass. There are no fixed differences in their developing brains. Genitals aside, they’re simply kids. He wants to see whether teaching the kids differently will lead to them thinking differently.

First, the classroom environment has to change so sex is no longer the first division. Signs are put up affirming that boys and girls are sensitive, girls and boys are strong. The “girls’ cupboard” and “boys’ cupboard” where the children put their coats are repainted as one big gender-neutral wardrobe. Stereotyped books are swapped out for ones about adventurous girls and kind boys. The children have their career expectations shaken up by meeting a male ballet dancer, a female mechanic. And their likeable teacher, Mr Andre, has to change too: he’s trained out of his habitual reference to the girls as “love” and the boys as “mate”, and introduced to a lottery system to break his habit of picking boys first.

It’s the smallness of these things that’s really telling of the hugeness of the problem. Individually, they seem so trivial as to barely seem worth fixing, and so ingrained that trying to fix them takes constant vigilance (Mr Andre’s slips into “love” and “mate” are recorded on a wall chart). No wonder sexism seems to be one of those things that everyone’s against but no one sees as their problem to fix. The head, for example, speaks regretfully of “quite biased views about what boys are expected to do and what girls are expected to do.” But somehow this has never translated into the kind of interventions Abdelmoneim is trying.

Does it work? That’s the cliffhanger for episode two, but the first part suggests some pretty dramatic results. When the children take part in a test-your-strength contest, the difference between expectation and performance lead to tears: a girl who happily cries “I didn’t think I could do it!” about her maximum score, and a boy who predicted himself a 10 but throws himself down on the ground in an angry tantrum when he fails to get a single point. How much stronger might girls be if they didn’t absorb the myth of their own weakness and opt out of physical activity early? How much more resilient would boys be if they weren’t holding themselves up to an unrealistic standard?

We won’t know the answer to that unless adults are able to stop telling the same dull old gender stories to children. In one scene, the documentary reenacts the famous Baby X experiments, showing how adults direct infant play down strictly sex-stereotyped lines, pressing dolls on the baby in pink, and robots and shape sorters on the one in blue. But given the opportunity to be themselves first rather than their sex, the children of Laneseed seem to thrive. In fact, the only reform they chafe at are gender neutral toilets. (“The girls were like, ‘Oh they [the boys] come out with their bits dangling out and they don’t wash their hands,’” Abdelmoneim told the Mail.)

Watching No More Boys and Girls is a strange experience, validating and dispiriting at the same time. Yes, you see the evidence of sexism in action that’s usually hidden in plain sight. You also see that there’s so much of it, it’s hard to know where to begin in countering it. Maybe we should start like this: stop insulting children by pretending their understanding of gender is hardwired at birth, and take some adult responsibility for the world we’ve put them in. 

No More Boys And Girls: Can Our Kids Go Gender Free? starts on BBC2 at 9pm on Wednesday.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.