Tony Hisgett/Flickr
Show Hide image

Jonathan Coe's Number 11 is a bitingly dark portrait of society

A spider’s web of money binds lives together in Coe's state-of-the-nation novel.

PC Nathan Pilbeam is a copper with a difference. Just 24 years old and stuck out in Guildford (sorry, Guildford), he has a passion for criminal investigation and a need to prove his pet theory that all crime must be set in a political, social and cultural context. He reads everything he can get his hands on, the better to understand the world around him; his colleagues call him “Nate of the Station” (Jonathan Coe has a special genius for puns). Reading up on a case – he’ll take in anything from the London Review of Books and Freud to blogging comedians – he is struck by something he finds online, an argument that comedy does a disservice to society by dissipating anger. “Every time we laugh at the venality of a corrupt politician, at the greed of a hedge fund manager, at the spurious outpourings of a right-wing columnist, we’re letting them off the hook.”

Coe said something along the same lines a few years ago when he was talking about his much-loved novel What a Carve Up! (1994). One might fairly ask: where does that leave Jonathan Coe? For, just over two decades later, he has followed up that outrageously funny novel with a sequel. Or rather, a sequel of sorts: while it is certainly connected to its predecessor, you’ll do fine with this book if you have never read What a Carve Up! And while this novel might not make you double up with helpless laughter in quite the same way, it’s proof that Coe retains his comic gift.

But this isn’t stand-up; Coe’s satire has a purpose. What a Carve Up! was centred around the Winshaw family, “the meanest, greediest, cruellest bunch of back-stabbing, penny-pinching bastards who ever crawled across the face of the earth”. Their influence, we saw, stretched the length and breadth of the land and the novel was a portrait of how the consumer society had eroded the postwar social contract – even back in the 1990s. Coe has called it a preachy novel and so it was, but no less enjoyable for that, and the same can be said of its successor.

As Number 11 opens, two ten-year-old girls, Alison and Rachel, are staying with Rachel’s grandparents in Yorkshire. They arrive on the night in 2003 when the body of the WMD expert Dr David Kelly is discovered at Harrowdown Hill, in Oxfordshire. That death and its political repercussions have no real part to play in the rest of the novel – yet they haunt the book as we follow Alison and Rachel forward into their lives. Alison tries to make her way as an artist and Rachel gets into Oxford. Kelly serves as the factual emblem that there are forces moving our lives over which we have no control: and, yes, that’s pretty didactic.

Coe means to make a point, as the title of his novel reveals. This is indeed Coe’s 11th novel and the number recurs in the book, as a bus route (Birmingham’s 26-mile outer circle route, renowned among aficionados of public transport); as the number of a house and a storage unit; as the number of storeys in a vast Chelsea basement. But money runs the show: that is the chief force that drives us all, in Coe’s book, whether we will or no. The number of the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s official residence can never be far from the reader’s mind.

Alison’s and Rachel’s lives are connected to other lives, too. There is Val, Alison’s mother, a one-time singer scrabbling to make ends meet and who thinks that she has been saved when she is invited on to I’m a Celebrity . . . Get Me Out of Here!; Laura, Rachel’s tutor at Oxford, who takes her student under her wing and tells her the long and peculiar story of her husband’s mysterious death; Sir Gilbert Gunn and his family, members of the 1 per cent (make that the 0.01 per cent), into whose lives Rachel is drawn when she goes to work as a tutor for their Eton-educated son and their strangely well-behaved twin girls. There is our friend Nate of the Station, determined to discover what is behind a spate of mysterious disappearances. Throughout there are traces of the Winshaw legacy – a spider’s web of money and lies binds all of these lives together and from it there is no escape.

Coe hasn’t lost his ability to paint a bitingly dark portrait of society and he has moved with the times. Particularly strong are the sections in which Val heads out to the Australian “jungle” to have her utter humiliation televised; if that humiliation is not surprising, it is no less shocking for that. And when Rachel finds herself living in the Gunns’ Chelsea mansion, Coe’s descriptions of a London consumed and abandoned by wealth, where “the tangy scent of money” hangs in the air and houses left empty by their vastly rich owners accumulate value, are haunting. Walking past those houses, you can watch “money attach to them like barnacles to a sunken ship”.

Sometimes, Coe falls prey to exposition. Characters tell tales to each other that might have been dramatised. Yet his storytellers are compelling: the novel has flaws but it catches you and won’t let go, like that sticky spider’s web. Readers who thought What a Carve Up! was too much of a sermon probably won’t be converted. But there are plenty of us who are awfully glad – if alarmed – to see how the Winshaw legacy carries on into the present day. 

Jonathan Coe's Number 11 is published by Viking (£16.99, 353pp).

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer. A former literary editor of the Times, she has twice judged the Man Booker Prize. Her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters”, the novel Seizure and, most recently, Chief Engineer: The Man Who Built the Brooklyn Bridge

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State

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