After working for so long on the story of B.S. Johnson, being immersed in researching his life and work, agonizing over how to sift and present all of what he had gathered, and then going through the whole palaver of promoting his biography, Jonathan Coe must have felt in need of a change, a switch to something more gentle after all the antagonism and confrontation caught up in Like A Fiery Elephant. So his 2007 novel The Rain Before It Falls was the perfect response, and it is the most-read here among Jonathan’s books. There is just something about it that is so haunting and beautifully bittersweet.
If there was one thing that may have been at the back of Jonathan’s mind after his B.S. Johnson biography it may well have been how to reconcile the old storytelling tradition with a more experimental approach. His answer to this was to tell the story of an old lady’s life through a series of tapes she has recorded in her final days which refer to a set of 20 photographs from various stages in that life. It is an inventive solution, and one that works wonderfully well. Even when one knows how the book ends it still seems incredibly sad, and somehow manages to be a shock to the system, triggering unwelcome regrets about missed opportunities to come calling.
The story belongs to Rosamond, and she is part of a network of stories Jonathan has created linking one extended family and its various branches. Perhaps Jonathan could not quite shake off his B.S. Johnson research because the evacuee motif that haunts the writer’s life is central to The Rain Before It Falls too. As a young girl Rosamond had been evacuated from her West Midlands home to the farmhouse of her relations near Much Wenlock, Shropshire, possibly near to Blandings Castle. The farmhouse features again in the short story Ivy and Her Nonsense.
There is a very telling phrase in the book where Rosamond’s partner Ruth, an artist, is said to be bitter about the way her work was considered to be too adventurous and difficult by some people, and too conventional by others. It is pure projection, but it is easy to imagine Jonathan Coe on dark days feeling the same way about his writing.
There are some familiar themes running through the book, with Jonathan’s enthusiasm for films coming through in the way the 1950 Powell & Pressburger imagining of Mary Webb’s Gone To Earth becomes a part of the “patchwork of coincidences”. And Rosamond herself certainly seems to have been named in honour of Rosamond Lehmann, one of Jonathan’s favourite writers. His novel House of Sleep had opened with a quote from her book The Echoing Grove.
The juxtaposition of Rosamond Lehmann’s writing and the films of Powell & Pressburger is also suggestive of Michael Bracewell’s excellent reinvention of the pop tradition, England is Mine. This was first published in 1997, and with a little research it is easy enough to unearth old articles of Jonathan Coe’s from the New Statesman archive which predate it and are about Rosamond Lehmann and Powell & Pressburger, but the connection seems to be there.
"Utterly unique ... Michael Bracewell shows himself to be nothing less than the poet laureate of late capitalism,” runs the cover quote from Jonathan Coe on some editions of Michael Bracewell’s 2001 novel Perfect Tense. Jonathan’s generous critical comments have in the past acted as introductions to people who have gone on to become favourite writers here, like John Murray and Catherine O’Flynn. But on this occasion there was no need. Surely any fan of England is Mine would want to read Michael Bracewell’s supplementary story which consciously or not seems to draw upon some of the same themes and ideas?
Perfect Tense is along with Nicholson Baker's The Mezzanine the great ‘clerical work’ novel. It is also a great London book that once seemed unnervingly close to home, dealing with the theme of surviving office life in London, and juggling adopted anonymity, the retreat into invisibility and hidden private passions, at least until it all comes tumbling down, and it does, oh it always does, eventually. You think you are fitting in, but you always get found out.
In September 2003 Bracewell wrote a lovely essay on Dexys for the Evening Standard, referring to Don’t Stand Me Down and how “the idea, of course, was to use ‘ordinariness’ as an act of anti-fashion antagonism within the arena of pop.” In a way that article acts as a coda to England is Mine and Perfect Tense. And that sentence sort of sums up Perfect Tense, a book where the narrator clings to Flaubert’s dictum that one should dress and behave like a bourgeois to be violent and original in one’s work.
Bracewell is excellent on London office life in the late twentieth century: the commuting, in from the suburbs, the internal politics, the affairs, the furniture, the rituals, and especially the lunch breaks. He captures the disappearing cafés and the sandwich bars, the ones run by old Italian families, with the beautiful daughters. Indeed, the narrator has a thing about falling passionately in love with unattainable strangers he sees in coffee shops, or on trains, or out shopping during the lunch break.
The book’s ‘hero’ is one of those born in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the awkward out-of-step generation, one of “the stragglers in the race of an office career, disqualified from the fast track by our fundamental lack of interest in winning.” He sees himself as a sort of sleeper, infiltrator, and observer, longing to play the role of dandified urban anthropologist who is part secret agent and part social scientist. But as the book progresses he loses faith, and feels the old familiar panic, emptiness, insecurity and anxiety that once assailed Reggie Perrin.
We learn a lot about our narrator’s habits, his reading material, his “compensatory pleasures”, but oddly given Bracewell’s background there is very little music in the book, apart from a punk interlude and a reference to walking back from gigs over the river to catch the train at Waterloo. We never get to learn what he listens to back home in the welcome anonymity of the suburbs, which might be good in a way because it might just break the spell.