The great David Nobbs asked if he could adapt What A Carve Up! and it is easy to imagine Jonathan Coe’s delight at the idea of his hero approaching him in this way. An eight-part radio dramatization was broadcast on the BBC in 2005, and there was mention of a complementary TV series being made for ITV.
Jonathan has been very open about the debt he feels he owes David Nobbs for the way his Reggie Perrin TV scripts and the series of novels opened up all sorts of possibilities. In a very touching way Jonathan paid his own tribute to David and Reggie with his characters in his 2010 novel The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim which features a quote from The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin as part of the epigraph and has characters with names familiar from the books and TV series like Roger Anstruther, David Webster and Tony Harris-Jones, and the wonderful Miss Erith who steals the show entirely with her brief appearance.
The story of Maxwell Sim and his disintegration is linked to that of the yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, but plenty of parallels can be drawn with Reggie Perrin’s destructive urges. In an odd way, Reggie’s world is so familiar to many of us, and the various catchphrases still reverberate unwillingly in our heads, with the whole eleven minutes late, I didn’t get where I am today, a bit of a cock-up, great, super, I’m not a whatever person, Success City Arizona thing. It is easy to forget certain aspects central to the story.
There is the sense of middle-aged insecurity, anxiety, boredom and breakdown, but together with this is Reggie’s serial success. As the original story starts he is a fairly senior manager in a large firm. He later has enormous success with his Grot shops, and later once again with his Perrins community. Each time as things are going well, Reggie hits the self-destruct button, as he gets restless and things begin to unravel: “Contentment worries me”. Or, as he tells his cat Ponsonby: “We've got to do something unpredictable occasionally haven't we?”
Reggie argued that “the world is absurd. The more absurd you are, the more chance you have of success” One of Reggie’s more absurd ideas was his shop Grot about which he said: “My plan is to make and sell rubbish. I plan to make things that are of no value and sell them in our shop at high prices to people who will find them of no possible use whatsoever”. The subsequent success of the shop, which rapidly expanded into a multi-million pound empire, prompted agonised analysis along the lines of was Reggie offering “a valuable social service” and whether he was a high street prankster or social visionary?
It is tempting to suggest that back in 1977 David Nobbs with his storyline about Grot kind of foresaw the incredible success of Poundland and other discount stores. In fact the story of Poundland’s founder Steve Smith and his rise (and in a world of rapidly rising prices how hard will it be for the poundshops to maintain their position?) from a market stall in the West Midlands to being in a position where he could sell the business for £50million is suspiciously David Nobbs-like, except that as yet, thankfully, there do not seem to be any stories about Steve and Tracy Smith leaving behind piles of clothes on Chesil Bank.
David Nobbs’ writing career was impressively long, and in many ways the enduring appeal of Reggie Perrin overshadows what else he created. His final two books, in fact, are arguably his best, and form a remarkable pair. His 2012 novel The Fall and Rise of Gordon Coppinger is a (still) topical tale of a control freak losing control. Written at a time when bankers were the lowest of the low (and Sir Fred Goodwin or Fred the Shred public enemy number one) it tells the story of Sir Gordon Coppinger, self-styled tycoon, financier, industrialist, patriot, philanthropist, philanderer, who in the autumn of 2011 starts to feel uncharacteristic anxiety and unease, as he and his empire start to unravel. His schemes come undone, and he gets found out as the “British Bernie Madoff”. And this was well before Sir Philip Green’s disgrace, which in an odd way is foretold here.
The funny thing is that somehow David Nobbs makes Sir Gordon seem more and more likeable as his world comes apart at the seams and he is exposed as a right old so-and-so. He is a very different character to Jonathan Coe’s Winshaws with their privileged background. Sir Gordon comes from a humble West Midlands background, and simply liked and was good at making money. And there actually seems some hope for him.
Characteristically David fills the book with an excellent supporting cast, including the Coppingers’ butler Farringdon and Gordon’s brother Hugo, a merchant banker, who is less loveable and says things like: “I love walking in London. It keeps me fit, and I always see something I can disapprove of”. There are loads of lines that good in the book, including the one about “a kiss is a kiss is a kiss as Gertrude Stein might have said on one of her more affectionate days.”
It is a bold and radical move making Sir Gordon an oddly human figure, who in his downfall becomes involved in some truly touching scenes, suggesting perhaps there may be hope for mankind. The same sense of redemption flows through his final book, The Second Life of Sally Mottram, from 2014. As the book starts Sally is 47, the same sort of age as Reggie Perrin was when we first met him, and she is the very epitome of respectability, married to a lawyer, living in the small Pennine town of Potherthwaite, her children having grown up and moved away. Then her husband commits suicide, she is left without any money, and has to start her life all over again.
Inspired by the Transition movement, Sally decides to launch a campaign to transform her home town, and over the course of the next few years she is remarkably successful, initially opposing the arrival of a new supermarket, and moving on to far bigger projects. It is a fantasy of sorts, a far-fetched one, and a feel-good story, but it is an inspirational tale, with lots of lovely diversions about how Sally’s crusade also transforms the lives of the people she comes into contact with. It is an incredibly moving book, a very political one, very warm and full of hope about the power people have to bring about change. And it is all the more powerful because sadly David died a year or so after its publication.
As a tribute Jonathan Coe dedicated his novel Number 11 to David Nobbs “who showed me how”. In an odd way Number 11 feels as much the concluding part of a trilogy that takes in the stories of Gordon Coppinger and Sally Mottram as it does a sequel to What A Carve Up! In their own unique ways they are all protests. And while the Winshaw family pops up again in Number 11 it feels like in trying to reflect the times (this is Britain just before the referendum that in Reggie Perrin’s prophetic words created “Needless division! Heedless attrition!”) Jonathan finds life is rather more complex than in the 1980s where it was very clear who was on which side and why. One telling phrase a character of Jonathan’s uses is: “Let envy, rivalry, economic uncertainty and status anxiety be the new spurs to creativity.”