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

SCIENCE AND SOCIETY PICTURE LIBRARY
Show Hide image

A Lab of One’s Own: the forgotten female scientists who shed stereotypes about women’s abilities

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own.

You might assume that there’s not much left to be written about the suffragette movement. But what has been ignored is that in the quiet corridors of university science departments, important battles were fought by women whose names were quickly forgotten. They weren’t always high-profile campaigners, but by forcing open the gates to the male-dominated worlds of science and engineering they helped shed stereotypes about women’s abilities.

In A Lab of One’s Own, the Cambridge historian Patricia Fara documents these scientists’ stories, painting a picture of a world that clearly wanted to remain male. It was the First World War that gave women unprecedented access to careers for which they had until then been deemed unsuitable. From all walks of life, they began working in munitions factories, developing chemical weapons (at one point, 90 per cent of industrial chemists were women) and building war machinery, while male scientists were on the battlefield.

These weren’t safe jobs; 200 women producing TNT died from poisoning or accidental explosions. Their achievements were so immense that even the prime minister Herbert Asquith, who opposed female suffrage, was forced to admit that there was hardly a service “in which women have not been at least as active and efficient as men”.

There is understandable anger in Fara’s voice. Despite their skill and dedicated service – often working for less pay than their male counterparts, or none at all – female scientists faced appalling resistance. Women were shunted into the worst roles, mocked for what they wore (trousers or skirts, they could never seem to get it right), and their ideas were ignored. Trade unions fought to protect men, meaning most women went unrepresented, promptly losing their jobs once the war was over.

Again and again, they had to carve out spaces for themselves then battle for the right to keep them. Britain’s scientific societies pulled elaborate tricks to block female members in the first half of the 20th century. One graduate, Emily Lloyd, managed to gain admission to the Royal Institute of Chemistry only by cleverly using the gender-neutral “E Lloyd” to sit the qualifying exam.

But getting through the door was only half the challenge. At Cambridge, men stamped their feet while women walked to their reserved seats at the front of the lecture theatres (imagine how they must have felt when Philippa Fawcett, daughter of the suffragette Millicent Fawcett, beat them all to come top in the Cambridge Mathematical Tripos exams in 1890). Women-only labs were given inferior facilities. Even scientists who worked alongside their husbands sometimes weren’t given credit when their joint work was published.

Every woman in this book deserves a biography of her own. Martha Whiteley, for example, who did pioneering work on mustard gas and wounded her arm when she tested it on herself. And the chemist Dorothea Hoffert, who researched varnish and food before having to give up work when she got married. The personal tales of these remarkable figures could benefit from more spacious storytelling, but as a scholarly account, Fara’s book offers a window into this fascinating chapter of history.

What’s also intriguing is the unease that men felt on seeing women doing “their” jobs. Soldiers worried about “the masculinisation of women” back home. There were fears that uniforms and protective overalls would drain femininity, and that by choosing to study and work rather than reproduce, clever women were depriving the nation of clever babies.

Unsurprisingly then, after the war, things went back swiftly to how they were before. Even in medical schools, where women had made huge strides, “the traditional masculine culture reasserted itself”. Women did win the battle in the end, although the war continues. As Fara makes clear, this was not only through the force of their intellects but also by taking the example of male clubs and forming their own networks. Women’s colleges became hotbeds for campaigning, particularly Newnham in Cambridge. The Women’s Engineering Society, the British Federation of University Women, and others were set up partly to help women fight entrenched efforts to hold them back.

“It is with much interest that we learned a few weeks ago that women chemists in London had formed a Club,” a snobbish editorial in the journal Chemistry and Industry began in 1952. “Most men are clubbable one way or another, but we did not know this was true of women. We wonder if this formation of a Club for women chemists is another sign of female emancipation.”

It was. By banding together and defending their rights, women found a strength that many before the war assumed they would never have. These pioneers not only helped win women the vote, they changed what it meant to be a woman. l

Angela Saini is the author of “Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story” (4th Estate). Patricia Fara will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Friday 12 April.​

A Lab of One’s Own: Science and Suffrage in the First World War
Patricia Fara
Oxford University Press, 352pp, £18.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist