Jonathan Coe is a good person to have around in precarious times. It is easy to take Jonathan’s presence for granted, but we are lucky to have him. As a writer he occupies a pretty unique position in popular culture. This works for him and against him. He is a force for good, and an incredibly fine author.
Some writers are great at the small things, and present us with sentences that can make us sigh in admiration. Shena Mackay and Manuel Rivas spring to mind. It is the sort of thing that fans of Anita Brookner will claim. And it is what makes, say, Sleepless Nights by Elizabeth Hardwick so compelling.
Other writers are great at telling stories. Jonathan Coe is a perfect example of someone who has this gift. He actually has “storyteller” in his Twitter biog, which presumably is done with a twinkle in his eye as no one would be more aware than Jonathan that “telling stories is telling lies” is one of the phrases from B.S. Johnson’s writing that sticks in the mind.
Jonathan has given us some wonderful stories over the years, often ones which are intricately plotted and perfectly paced, gathering momentum as the pages are turned, pulling the reader in gradually. It sounds simple, but the art of storytelling is a difficult one to master. It is what made authors like Jeffrey Archer and Maeve Binchy so incredibly popular with their fans, and is nothing to sneer at.
By many people’s standards Jonathan Coe is a popular and mainstream writer, but there is always a subversive element there in his books. He may know the avant-garde inside out, but in a way he is part of a tradition that Alan Plater refers to in an old interview with Matthew Sweet when he says: "One of the things that has changed, I think, is that middle-of-the-road drama was always allowed to carry a few extra ingredients. A little bit of social comment or political comment. You were encouraged to make the mix a bit richer with elements other than who did what to whom, and will he or she get caught before they go into the burning building?”
Jonathan has been writing a fair old while now, and it seems fair to say that it took him a while to really get going. Things seemed to fall into place, pretty spectacularly, in 1994 with his fourth novel, What A Carve Up! It remains a supremely entertaining book, one underpinned by social commentary, making it a very effective form of protest. It is satirical in the sense that it uses comic exaggeration to highlight grotesque behaviours. By modern day standards though, the way Jonathan ridicules 1980s excesses oddly now feels more like documentary than a flight of fancy.
What A Carve Up! is largely about how a privileged family’s activities impact on everyday lives. The extended Winshaw family is truly grotesque, but no more absurd than Boris and the Johnson family and where its tentacles have reached and how through school and university the connections get entangled with privilege and politics and the media. If Jonathan had conjured up their story back in the early 1990s he would have been laughed at.
The Winshaw dynasty as captured in What A Carve Up! takes in such symbols of the 1980s disease as the controversial newspaper columnist, the exploitative art dealer, the farmer whose disdain for her livestock is matched by her contempt for the public who buy her deadly frozen foodstuffs, the merchant banker obsessed with wealth creation, the businessman dealing in weapons for whoever pays the going rate, and the political strategist whose mantra is “freedom, competition, choice” and who is implicit in the privatisation process and NHS cuts. His indifference is best summed up by his phrase: “There’ll be an outcry of course but then it’ll die down and something else will come along for people to get annoyed about”.
It is a book that is both tragic and funny, but at times it works best because real anger comes through, and is all the more powerful for being a little unexpected. There are glancing references by characters to the “wretched, lying, thieving, self-advancing Winshaws”, the “meanest, greediest, cruellest” of people, driven by “naked, clawing brutish greed”.
There is a particularly moving passage where the book’s central figure Michael Owen speaks to his neighbour, in very sad circumstances, though he may be talking to himself in the way we do to keep ourselves sane: “And so they sit at home getting fat on the proceeds and here we all are. Our businesses failing, our jobs disappearing, our countryside choking, our hospitals crumbling, our homes being repossessed, our bodies being poisoned, our minds shutting down, the whole bloody spirit of the country crushed, and fighting for breath. I hate the WInshaws”.
By Winshaw standards Michael is a loser. He is a minor author, whose early books have titles rather like Jonathan’s. He has had a breakdown of sorts. And he is a typical Coe central character in that he is nothing special. He is pretty insipid, and rather weak in many ways. He has come to a standstill, of sorts, at least for a while. And he is not even an oddly romantic figure like the everyday failures which pop-up in Shena Mackay’s books. But he seems decent, and is sort of appealing in his passivity.
Jonathan does make his disappointed heroes strangely attractive, and this may well be because he seems to genuinely like and understand his horribly fallible and very ordinary characters. There is genuine warmth there, which is something he has inherited from his own hero David Nobbs. There is a telling passage from David’s novel The Better World of Reginald Perrin where Reggie is being interviewed on television and he says:
“They come to Perrins in the hope that here at last they’ll find a place where they won’t be ridiculed as petty snobs, scorned as easy targets, and derided by sophisticated playwrights, but treated as human beings who are bewildered by the complexity of social development, castrated by the conformities of the century of mass production, and dwarfed by the speed and immensity of technological progress that has advanced more in fifty years than in millions of years of human existence before it.”