Even the best British satirists, as they get older, lapse into a style I call the Private Eye cartoon phase. Martin Amis reached it with Lionel Asbo. Sue Townsend got there in Queen Camilla. Banksy built it in ‘Dismaland’. Ben Elton has been in the Private Eye cartoon phase for at least twenty years. The phase is a kind of noisy decline. Characters become stereotypes. Dialogue lapses into authorial comment. Carefully drawn landscapes sink into messy broad-strokes in primary colours. The narrative is a slapdash frenzy. The setups feel contrived. The jokes are clunky and obvious. So is the message. The Private Eye cartoon phase is an evil trap… and even the best novelists fall into it.
Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up was one of the finest novels about the 1980s. In it Coe created his grasping ruling family, the Winshaws, who have a hand in all of the decade’s disasters. Mark Winshaw is an arms dealer who prolongs the Iran-Iraq war; Dorothy an agribusiness tycoon driving farmers to the wall; Hilary a TV exec trying to dismantle the BBC. Into their story stumbles Michael Owen, a reclusive novelist, roadblocked in art and love, who is persuaded by a renegade family member to write a critical biography of the Winshaws that will expose their numerous crimes.
Coe beat all chroniclers of Thatcherism with his deft portrayal of entitlement and cruelty, and his quiet, fierce advocacy for an alternative world that values every human being. What a Carve Up was not just political satire. It evoked love, sexuality, dreams and hidden worlds. ‘There comes a point,’ says Mortimer Winshaw, ‘where greed and madness become practically indistinguishable.’ The Winshaws live at the terminus where materialism becomes dreams. (Their family home is in Yorkshire, the Raven King’s dream county.) Michael adds that: ‘If you sleep, if you dream, you must accept your dreams. It’s the role of the dreamer.’
There is a danger in revisiting old characters twenty years on. It’s mitigated in this instance because the main Winshaw villains were wiped out, in a series of marvellous set-pieces, at the end of What a Carve Up (although perhaps there is some hope for the fate of Michael Owen?) Apart from a few bastards and by-blows, the family lives on through its legacy: privatisation, warfare, the property boom, shock art and a poisonous media culture. Number 11 examines this legacy in a series of novella-like stories, loosely connected – and it’s here that Coe’s satire falls down.
The first problem is structural. What a Carve Up is how Henry James described Middlemarch, a ‘treasure-house of detail’. The book was huge, it had an enormous cast and esoteric subjects, but Coe made it all hang together. Number 11 just feels like a novella collection, with recurring characters and themes lashed through it at the last minute. In Coe’s reach to get everything in that he wants to write about – food banks, benefit fraud, colonialism, high finance, higher education, the music industry – it feels like we’re dashing after him from place to place without the space and time to take anything in. There is connection, but no coherence.
Part of Coe’s brilliance lay in his memorable and distinctive characterising. Who can forget growing up with Benjamin Trotter in The Rotter’s Club, then witnessing the lonely mess of his adult life in The Closed Circle? Who was not moved by the awful fate of Robin, painstaking reconstructed, in A Touch of Love? Coe was always particularly good on the weakness and frailties of men as they navigated the fraught and magical terrain of love and sex. He was like Larkin, without the bitterness.
Not any more. The standard Coe love story comes in the section ‘The Winshaw Prize’ where a policeman is investigating murders connected to the Winshaws. He is also in love with a woman called Lucinda, a beautiful primary school teacher who works at the local foodbank. The unrequited romance is pure Coe in all respects but one: we never actually get to know what Lucinda is thinking, she is just a figure of unattainable virtue and desire. Read – if you can stomach it – these few sentences that illustrate what a cliché his writing on the heart has become:
She wore her hair pulled back and tightly tied behind her head, thereby encouraging Nathan to picture, during his fevered nocturnal fantasies, the moments when she would untie it, shake it loose and remove her horn-rimmed glasses, which would be his cue to utter the traditional words, ‘Why, Lucinda – but you’re beautiful.’
Lucinda is one of the good guys, but Coe can no longer do bad guys either. He brings on a minor character called Frederick Francis, a tax accountant who boasts of how much he is stealing from the Treasury, then makes a drunken pass at the novel’s heroine. ‘It doesn’t matter how generous the government is,’ Freddie complains, ‘however much they lower the top rate. If you’re bringing home ten million a year, you’re writing an annual cheque to the Inland Revenue for four million pounds…. That hurts.’ Later Coe tires of the accountant and has him eaten by a giant spider.
No great loss. What made the Winshaws so scary and real – legs kicking, fur bristling – was that they were human monsters. But Coe no longer makes the effort to find the humanity inside the monster. His protagonist Rachel ends up a live-in governess for two rich twins, and reflects that ‘The more time she spent with these strange, emotionless girls, the more Rachel felt that she was dealing with two of John Wyndham’s Midwich Cuckoos.’ The dead girls in The Shining had more character.
Sublimating characterisation to satire is a sign that your satire’s not working. For a leftwing writer like Coe, the initial problem is a massive overstimulus. Britain in 2015 is a satirist’s nightmare, because where do you even start? (The Ashcroft-Cameron feud, for example – how’s that for a story arc?) There’s so much, he doesn’t know quite what to focus on, so the reader’s impression is an unfocused tirade. Ghastly young people, ghastly social media, ghastly businessmen, ghastly vulgar rich people, ghastly tradesmen. Where does it end? Hilary’s daughter, Josephine Winshaw-Eaves, is looking to make a name as a columnist, so traps a benefit claimant – an LGBT woman of colour, who has a prosthetic leg – into a fraud sting, so she can then castigate her as ‘the archetypal paragon of modern entitlement.’ This setup takes Coe at least fifty pages to construct, when he used to be able to do it in a few words, as when he had Hilary declare: ‘Roll on [TV] 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).’
In a long section called ‘The Comeback’ Coe sends a middle-aged ex musician – working in a library and wistful for another shot at stardom – on an I’m a Celebrity style game show. It is a disaster. The ex-rocker is humiliated on TV and on social media; her endurance in the jungle is described at painful length. ‘Now it was wriggling and thrashing even more violently inside there, and trying to escape out the back by forcing itself down her throat, but Val just screwed her eyes even tighter – her eyes from which tears of distress were starting to leak – and closed her mouth ever more firmly.’ Where Coe once gave us poignancy, he now only offers the pornography of disappointment. Why do novelists always see reality TV as such a reliable comic trove? And when was the last time you heard anyone talk about I’m a Celebrity?
One of Coe’s conscious themes, in fact, is the failure of satire to cope with rapidly changing times. His comedy blogger writes: ‘Every time we laugh at the venality of a corrupt politician, at the greed of a hedge fund manager, at the spurious outpourings of a rightwing columnist, we’re letting them off the hook.’ For me this segues into a beautiful passage in this new novel, about a historian recently deceased:
The whole thing that defined that situation, and the whole beauty of it, as far as he was concerned, was passivity. Other people were making choices for him. People he trusted. He loved that. He loved the idea of trusting people to make decisions on his behalf. Not all of them. Just some. Just enough so that you were free to live other parts of your life the way that you wanted. I suppose, apart from anything else, that’s one of the definitions of a happy childhood, isn’t it? But Roger also thought he could remember a time when we all felt that way. A time when we trusted the people in power, and their side of the deal was to treat us… not like children exactly, but like people who needed to be looked after now and again. As I supposed many of us do.
How fine is this prose, and what a number of thoughts it raises. There is reflection here on the nostalgia of the left – Alan Bennett told King’s, Cambridge recently that ‘There has been so little that has happened to England since the 1980s that I have been happy about or felt able to endorse’ – but more profound questions also. How much choice in life do we really need? Why is freedom sometimes scary? Do we perceive freedom differently as we get older? But what it makes me think of is the decline of liberal certainty, and for me this all seems to relate to comedy.
I come from the suburban progressive middle class, I grew up watching Drop the Dead Donkey and Have I Got News For You and Harry Enfield. For us the world was safe. Tories were in power, but they were comical and slow and easily outsmarted. Everyone shared our view, there was a time in the 1990s when you could get a reliable laugh just by saying ‘Michael Howard’ or ‘Group Four’. (At the tail end of the decade comedians Lee and Herring satirised the satire by having ‘the actor Kevin Eldon’ make lazy jokes about then prime minister ‘Tony Blairs’ only to take the huff when his audience raises reasonable objections).
The complacency rested upon a sense that some kinder order would prevail. Not now. Now the forces of reaction are smarter and faster and younger. Taking them on is a big challenge. Does Coe still have the necessary brio?
And yet it’s not such a cold world even now. A few weeks ago, I watched the Great British Bake Off finale with my girlfriend. Fifteen million people watched with us. This year the Bake Off was won by a British Asian woman from Leeds. The show is gentle, silly, irreverent and wry, centred mainly around cake and biscuit making. Hilary Winshaw would have hated it.