“Sequels which are not really requels. Sequels where the relationship to the original is oblique, slippery.” In Number 11 Jonathan Coe includes this line as a sort of in-joke between him and his readers, acknowledging the complicated connections between this book and the earlier What A Carve Up! The same sort of relationship exists between The Rotters’ Club and The Closed Circle. They are inextricably linked, and feature some of the same characters.
Perhaps it would be more fun to call The Closed Circle a spin-off, tacitly acknowledging the way, say, that Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais created Going Straight as a spin-off of Porridge, which would be a nice touch as the peerless team of Clement & La Frenais did a great job writing the TV adaptation of The Rotters’ Club, and that kind of loops back in the same way that the ending of The Closed Circle circles back to the start of The Rotters’ Club with added Henry Cow in the Hotel Adlon. And part of The Rotters’ Club, the ‘Goodbye To All That’ speech by Doug Anderton on Monday 13 December 1999, pretty much forms the start of The Closed Circle, which makes sense.
That start of The Closed Circle lands the reader right in the middle of the New Labour era, and the first term of the Blair government, a new optimism and the subsequent disillusionment many of the Left felt, the period that Jonathan Coe feels Robert Wyatt so brilliantly predicted on his Old Rottenhat record in the mid-1980s: “There is a kind of compromise you are master of / Your endless gentle nudging left us polarised / It’s hard to talk to enemies and we are enemies / What we had in common makes it even worse”.
If The Rotters’ Club was pretty much a historical drama, then The Closed Circle was pretty much right up to date, and it feels now like a very good source for people who want to find out about aspects of the era. Rereading it after ten years-or-so, it is quite striking how much of the time Jonathan manages to work into his novel: the Third Way, the threatened closure of Longbridge, May Day and anti-globalization protests, Friends Reunited, PFI initiatives, the 2002 Bali bombings, shock and awe and the Iraqi War, and, close to home here, the Paddington rail crash and Railtrack being taken into administration, but not explicitly (perhaps oddly given the name of Jonathan’s favourite band) the Hatfield rail crash and the broken rail that caused it, with the subsequent chaos, speed restrictions and the whole question of private firms being in charge of rail maintenance and wanting to cut costs, which links closely to a number of themes in The Closed Circle.
Away from the politics, or perhaps very closely allied to the politics, Jonathan via Doug Anderton captures the spirit of the age, Britain in 2002: “The obscene weightlessness of its cultural life, the grotesque triumph of sheen over substance, all the clichés which were only clichés, as it happened, because they were true – that he was, perversely, pleased to be witnessing.” And it was so easy to be sucked in, flattering to be part of what was happening, getting a glimpse of what went on behind the scenes, with the slickness, the smart suits, the new phones, the glitzy well-organised events, all of which was a bit disorientating for those who felt they should instinctively hate it all but privately enjoyed fitting in, at least for a while.
If the story of New Labour is about one-time radicals becoming tame party animals, the betrayal of old ideals in the name of expediency and pragmatism, the obsession with presentation, then one of the things which The Closed Circle is very good at is hinting at the rise of a new kind of outsider, one allowed to evolve while attention was focused on the mainstream, a fresh form of extremism, as typified by the re-emergence of Sean Harding.
In The Rotters’ Club Harding is the joker in the pack among the core group of school kids, a sometimes inspired prankster who does not seem to know when to stop, and it is hard to know where the fooling around ends and something more sinister, even psychotic, begins. In The Closed Circle New Labour era he has retreated to the margins, and when we hear of him being found in 2003 he is living in a rural Norfolk farmhouse, dressing up in tweeds, yellow waistcoat, flat cap, little round steel-rimmed specs, and sporting an incredible bushy beard.
Harding in Norfolk is surrounded by books, on all sorts of subjects, like local history, topography, the occult and witchcraft, paganism and politics, eastern religious texts and really old novels. There is a sense, reading it in 2017, that this sounds horribly modern, and it is easy to imagine Harding appearing at a festival near you, onstage discussing his latest collection of sub-Sebaldry, and talking about England’s hidden reserves.
But, but, but, and this is where the Venn diagrams come in again, Harding’s political interests take in the spheres of fascism and fundamentalism, basically saying that jihadists and neo-Nazis are united in a war against America and the Zionists who are the real enemy. And this is where Jonathan Coe is clever, at least subconsciously, depicting Harding out there on the margins, with his computer to link him to the world, dripping his poison into the system, stirring up hate, exploiting the weak and easily influenced, and this activity and people like Harding somehow are in a way responsible for events like the murder of Jo Cox MP and what Anders Breivik did in Norway.
And perhaps this started with the grassroots activity of people like Sean Harding, just as say Brexit maybe began back in the 1970s with anti-Europe organisations like the National Association For Freedom (which the young Paul Trotter enthusiastically endorsed), and the old colonels plotting to set up (fairly) secret armies to fight the forces of anarchy, which David Nobbs caricatured in his Reggie Perrin stories, and which Reggie rightly dismisses on his return as something that will only serve to attract all the thugs, bully boys and psychopaths. The sort of people that a Sean Harding would exploit, the Sean about whom it is said there is nothing more depressing: “To think of all that cleverness, all that humour, all that mischief, and see the place it led him to, in the end.”