Classic Books: What a Carve Up!

whatacarveup‘If you sleep, if you dream, you must accept your dreams. It’s the role of the dreamer.’

– Michael Owen

What a Carve Up concerns one of Britain’s most powerful and influential families, the Winshaw dynasty of Yorkshire. Although the clan has been prominent for at least three centuries, the book deals with six cousins and siblings: Thatcherite turncoat Henry, arms dealer Mark, agricultural businesswoman Dorothy, Thomas the banker and voyeur, Roddy the art dealer and Hilary the tabloid columnist.

With a Yorkshire country pile and shitloads of cash and influence the Winshaws face no opposition to their corrupt and selfish activities. However, reclusive novelist Michael Owen may be set to change all that with his book about the Winshaw family, which seeks to expose their malignant nature. He has been hired by Tabitha Winshaw, a elderly outcast from the family whom they have had committed to an institution for accusing her brother Lawrence of betraying their brother Godfrey to the Nazis.

It was quite obvious to me, from the very beginning, that I was essentially dealing with a family of criminals, whose wealth and prestige were founded upon every manner of swindling, forgery, larceny, robbery, thievery, trickery, jiggery-pokery, hanky-panky, plundering, looting, sacking, misappropriation, spoliation and embezzlement… Because every penny of the Winshaw fortune – dating right back to the seventeenth century, when Alexander Winshaw first made it his business to corner a lucrative portion of the burgeoning slave trade – could be said to have derived, by some route or other, from the shameless exploitation of persons weaker than themselves. I felt that the word ‘criminal’ fitted the bill well enough, and that I was performing a useful service by bringing this fact to the attention of the public, while staying scrupulously within the bounds of my commission.

A roadblocked writer in his late thirties, Owen turns private detective as he tries to bring the secrets of the Winshaws to light – although he is as much Inspector Clouseau as Sam Spade. (The picture on the front cover of my edition – a small boy dressed as Sherlock Holmes – is a perfect illustration of Owen’s character). The bulk of the novel concerns Owen’s investigations, spliced with chapters dedicated to each Winshaw family member. Through much of the book we wonder what Owen even has to do with the family: in the words of genuine private detective Findlay Onyx, Owen ‘sits so uneasily with the others that you wonder whether he hasn’t wandered in from a different drama altogether.’

Yet as Owen digs deeper into the Winshaw saga, he discovers that he has more connection with the family than he thinks. Like all classic journalists, he ends up being sucked into the story, travels to the other side of the screen.

In the intervening chapters we see Mark selling arms to Saddam, Thomas helping tycoons to deplete employee pension funds, Henry doing his bit to destroy the NHS, Dorothy turning farm animals into microwaveable ready-meals (her chapter, with its graphic detail of the cruelty of modern agricultural methods, contains one of the book’s most disturbing passages) Roddy using his connections to seduce young artists and Hilary pioneering a now-customary brand of elitist populism.

This book is an indictment of Thatcherism, but it’s not the hysterical, shouty indictment we have come to expect. Instead, it’s a quiet, dignified, devastating anger that hums on every page. This is Mark’s reaction when his cousin Thomas hands him a leaflet about the nature of Saddam Hussein’s regime:

He knew all about the arbitrary arrests, the midnight raids, the trumped-up charges of dissidence or subversion, of belonging to the wrong sort of organization or attending the wrong sort of meeting, of refusing to join the Ba’ath party or agreeing to join the wrong wing of the Ba’ath party. He knew all about the unimaginable conditions in Baghdad’s ‘Department of Public Security,’ where detainees would be held in solitary confinement for months at a time, or made to lie on the floor of a cell with fifty or sixty other prisoners, listening to the recorded screams of torture victims by night and the real screams by day. And he knew all about this torture, too: how men and women were flayed, burned, beaten and sodomized with truncheons and bottles; scalded with domestic irons, their eyes, ears, noses and breasts cut off, electric shocks applied to their fingers, genitals and nostrils; how the torturers would wear animal masks and play tape recordings of wild animals as they went about their business; how children were tortured in front of their mothers, and placed blindfold in sacks filled with insects or starved cats; how men and women would be made to lie on their backs on the floor, their feet supported by wooden stocks, then beaten on the soles of their feet with truncheons and forced to walk or run over floors soaked with hot soapy water. Mark had heard it all before, which was why he barely glanced at the pamphlet through half-closed lids before handing it back to his cousin.

Another notable character is Hilary Winshaw. In her column, ‘Plain Common Sense,’ she slams liberals who disagree with TV deregulation: ‘They know that, given the opportunity, very few of us would ‘choose’ to watch the dreary round of highbrow drama and leftwing agitprop that they would like to inflict on us…. Roll on deregulation, I say, if it means more power to the viewer’s elbow and more of our favourite shows with the likes of Brucie, Noel and Tarby (NB subs please check those names).’

That bracketed note is significant, as Hilary Winshaw would never dream of watching the game shows that she advocates for the public, just as Dorothy Winshaw does not eat the ready meals produced by her farm. The character of Hilary as an elitist who poses as the voice of the people is reflected by many journalists in the real world, and not ridiculed often enough for my liking.

When a young painter is invited by Roddy to spend the night at Winshaw Towers with himself and sister Hilary, a classic passage comes up when the young artist listens to the Winshaw siblings’ chatter about the contemporary scene:

Phoebe occasionally read the review pages of the national papers and watched arts programmes on the television, so she recognised most of the names as belonging to that small, self-elected and mutually supporting circle which seemed – for better or worse – to be at the heart of what passed for cultural life down in London. What she couldn’t quite understand was the odd, persistent note of reverence which underpinned even the sleaziest or most trivial of the anecdotes: the sense that Roddy and Hilary did, in fact, ascribe real importance to everything said or done by these people; that they did believe them, at heart, to be something like colossi bestriding the national stage, even though Phoebe could easily have gone through the entire roster of her friends, colleagues, neighbours and patients and not found a single person in whom their names would have produced even the dimmest flicker of recognition.

Yet What a Carve Up has a personal and emotional dimension that transcends mere satire. The title refers not only to the redistribution of the country’s resources to a wealthy political class during the 1980s, but also to the Carry On film of the same name featuring a night in a gothic mansion similar to Winshaw Towers. Michael Owen sees this film at the age of nine, and for the next thirty years is haunted by the scene in which the beautiful Shirley Eaton invites Kenneth Connor to sleep with her, only for Connor to run away. ‘I look at my mother,’ Owen says, ‘and I’m on the point of asking her if she understands why Kenneth ran away instead of spending the night with a woman who would have made him feel safe and happy.’

Celibate for many years, Owen is still suffering from a particularly British fear of sex, and also a fear of love. He thinks of the world as being on another side of a TV screen: the moment where he absently points a remote control at his neighbour Fiona, as if trying to turn her off, is a case in point. He is torn between his two heroes: Yuri Gagarin, the astronaut, and Orpheus, the character who roams the subterranean consciousness. Owen defines himself as ‘a man of imagination rather than action: condemned, like Orpheus, to roam an underworld of fantasies, while my hero Yuri would not have hesitated to plunge boldly towards the stars.’ It is significant that the quotations that open the novel are not, say, from Mammon of Paradise Lost but Louis Philippe’s ‘Yuri Gagarin’:

‘Meet me,’ he’d said, but forgotten
‘Love me’: but of love we are frightened
We’d rather leave and fly for the moon
Than say the right words too soon

The narrative segues seamlessly between the exploits of the Winshaws and Owen’s own personal awakening. The latter is sparked off by Fiona, a neighbour of Owen’s with whom he begins a fledgling platonic relationship. As their closeness develops, Owen loses interest in his biography: ‘The Winshaws and their ruthless, fantastic, power-hungry lives had never seemed so distant.’ However, the circumstances of Fiona’s death slam Owen, and us, right back into the Winshaw mystery, and remind us that everybody is connected, and that society is more than individuals and families. His last words to Fiona, as she dies, are a savage judgement on the family:

There’s an explanation for everything, and there’s always someone to blame. I’ve found out why you’re here, you see. You’re here because of Henry Winshaw. Ironic, isn’t it? He wants you to be here because he can’t bear to think that his money or the money of people like him might be used to stop things like this from happening…. An open and shut case. All we need now is to get hold of the murderer and bring him to justice. And bring in the rest of the family, while we’re at it. They’ve all got blood on their hands. It’s written all over their faces. There’s no end to the people who’ve died because of Mark and his obscene trade. Dorothy was the one who killed off my father, feeding him all that junk; and Thomas added a twist of the knife, making his money vanish into thin air just when he needed it. Roddy and Hilary have certainly done their bit. If imagination’s the lifeblood of the people and thought is our oxygen, then his job’s to cut off our circulation and hers is to make sure we all stay dead from the neck up. 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 county crushed and fighting for breath.

Coe’s novel has been called postmodern, and there is some ambiguity over who is really telling the story; one edition has its subtitle as The Winshaw Legacy, the name of Owen’s proposed work. A wonderfully researched and detailed gothic powerhouse of a novel, What A Carve Up! is about the corruption of power and wealth, but also about the presence of dreams and imagination; as Tabitha says, life is but a dream. The following passage sums up the book’s seamless duality:

…because there comes a point where greed and madness can no longer be told apart. This dividing line is very thin, just like a belt of film surrounding the earth’s atmosphere. It’s a delicate blue, and this transition from the blue to the black is very gradual and lovely.


2 Responses to “Classic Books: What a Carve Up!”

  1. Celebrity Skin « Max Dunbar Says:

    […] attention away from other authors.’ The disillusioned publisher in Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up ranted for neglected artists when he is forced to publish a worthless book by elite populist […]

  2. What a Carve Up! | Caroline Lees Says:

    […] […]

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