“Nostalgia is the English disease” announces political journalist Doug Anderton in Jonathan Coe’s Brexit tragicomedy. Doug has been tracking the country’s deepening cultural chasms over several decades. “Obsessed with their bloody past, the English are – and look where that’s got us recently.”
Nostalgia certainly ain’t what it used to be. No longer a fuzzy yearning for Spitfire jigsaws and Morecambe and Wise, nostalgia has, in the hands of Brexit’s alpha ideologues, become a dangerous political weapon. But the cleverness of Middle England is that while Coe doesn’t spare the easier targets – whenever David Cameron’s name is evoked, someone usually mutters “twat” – he takes aim at nostalgia in all its forms. Including the sort that has helped Coe become one of our pre-eminent comic novelists.
Middle England revives many of the characters from The Rotters’ Club (2001), set in 1970s Birmingham, and its Blair-era sequel, The Closed Circle (2004). The story begins in 2010 with Gordon Brown calling a Labour supporter a bigot, and plays out against the 2011 riots, Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, and the 2017 Telegraph front page branding Tory MPs “Brexit Mutineers”. Benjamin Trotter, his schoolmates, and their extended families are transplanted to a Britain of food banks, rail replacement bus services and M&S prosecco bars. There are storylines about transphobia; dinner party debates about Trump and Putin; and couples who split over Brexit. Coe also pieces together many other seemingly random moments (Trenton Oldfield disrupting the Boat Race in 2012; the murder in 2010 of Jo Yeates in Bristol) that with hindsight, prove germane to our current political turmoil. Its threads of fiction and reality interweave to form an ironic lament for a country trapped in an imperialist fantasy. It’s the tale of what happens when nostalgia turns toxic.
Benjamin is now in his fifties, having wasted 30 years of his life romantically obsessed with Cicely, the prima donna from the girls’ school next to his. Since Cicely disappeared to Australia, the retired accountant has been living alone in a converted mill on the River Severn, tinkering with his roman-fleuve, “Unrest”, a “vast narrative of European history since Britain’s accession to the Common Market in 1973 with a scrupulous account of his own interior life during that period”. It now consists of more than one and a half million words, and comes with its own soundtrack.
One of the jokes of Middle England is that navel-gazing Benjamin is the protagonist when he is so hopelessly remote from the world. He’s precisely the sort of stale pale male who is no longer relevant, suggests the female journalist who interviews him when (in one of the book’s most absurd twists) he becomes an overnight literary sensation. Benjamin connects the varied cast, which includes his recently widowed father and his sister Lois. But it’s Lois’s daughter, Sophie, who steps into the novel’s spotlight.
Sophie is an academic studying “pictorial representations of 19th-century European writers of black ancestry” who falls for a driving instructor called Ian. Sophie loves London because she can “lose herself” in the heady mix of cultures. But it becomes clear that Ian is terrified of losing his identity in the multicultural throng – especially when an Asian female colleague gets a promotion over him. When Sophie is told by a man who runs a fork-lift company that she doesn’t “live in the real world”, she replies: “I think I do. Are you telling me I’m hallucinating?” Ian and his overbearing mother Helena also come to believe she is a self-satisfied metropolitan type. It leads a marriage counsellor to suggest that maybe the referendum “wasn’t about Europe at all”.
A complex picture of victimhood emerges, of a country living in a state of undeclared war. But Coe holds up his Remainer characters to scrutiny too, especially their tendency to romanticise the 1970s. Doug falls for a pro-Europe Tory MP, whooping with joy when she retains her seat in the election, which causes his daughter – a permanently outraged Momentum hipster – to stop speaking to him. Doug can’t help longing for any period pre-referendum, “a better, prelapsarian time, a time of carefree innocence and simple, childlike joy”. But this is just as ridiculous as the fantasies of a white nationalist Benjamin encounters, who plays the sackbut and crumhorn in an attempt to revive traditional English tunes.
Coe’s metier is the twerpishness of the comfortably-off, dissatisfied British man, available in all flavours. There are the ones who frequent the golf course, a prime spot for the radicalisation of angry men to the Brexit cause; the ones who gather in sheds to share conspiracy theories about white genocide; the smug literary ponces who feel entitled to sleep with younger women; and washed-up underachievers, such as Benjamin’s schoolfriend Philip, still banging on about the underrated genius of Tubular Bells.
Middle England is extremely funny – and it’s funny in a way that’s cathartic. If Coe comes across as a Remoaner licking his wounds, he always manages to cover his back, undercutting a rant or a moment of sentimentality with a wink at the reader.
There is a delicious irony in Coe taking aim at the past. His comedies provide such orgiastic surges of nostalgia, they have the addictive appeal of long-running soap operas. Benjamin and his grammar school classmates were born out of Coe’s most nostalgic novel. And both The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle abound in rose-tinted liberal hankering for a golden age of social democracy that perhaps never really existed.
The meta-joke of his fiction is that it cautions against nostalgia while simultaneously serving it up in great helpings. His characters are regularly reunited with former classmates, teachers, colleagues and lovers; his best dialogue tends to emerge from the teasing banter between old friends. He even allows characters from one story to show up later as cameos in another.
Coe has clearly begun to see nostalgia less as a forgivable foible and more as a fatal flaw. In Number 11, his 2015 novel about austerity (a sequel to What a Carve Up!), an academic is literally crushed by his obsessive search for a short film from his childhood. Here, the reader too is implicated.
But the younger generation don’t have the luxury of retreating from reality. Unlike her uncle, Benjamin, Sophie isn’t even allowed the consolation of a romantic fantasy. When she considers fleeing the country to pursue an old intrigue with an American colleague, she is quickly disabused of her illusions. She must stay in England, which Coe compares to a “weird as hell” garden centre off the M54. Somehow Sophie and her contemporaries will have to muddle through.
Jonathan Coe appears at Cambridge Literary Festival on 24 November
Viking, 432pp, £16.99