With some book tokens (yes they do still exist) that I got for Christmas I bought Middle England by Jonathan Coe, after reading a review in The Guardian and realising it was the third book in the series that started with the The Rotter’s Club and continued with The Closed Circle. I had enjoyed both of these books hugely, following a group of friends from the 1970s and into the New Labour Years. Middle England joins them again in 2010, just before Labour lose the election, and brings them into the present (well 2018), where they deal with the aftermath of the Brexit vote. Reading it this January felt very fitting, as the third Brexit deadline approached, this time a deadline that was actually going to result in Brexit itself.
It is a book that very cleverly explains just how it came to this, showing the anger that many people felt with not being listened to by the political class. It is an anger that has the temperature turned up as the book progresses, from a gentle simmering to full scale outrage, when families are broken by the strength of feeling. It uses the device of one of the main characters, Benjamin Trotter, driving to and fro across the middle of England, visiting his elderly father near Birmingham from his home in Shropshire, watching the Midlands towns go by. He re-kindles old friendships along the way, in one case through a chance meeting in the very British institution of the out-of-town garden centre.
Middle England lays bare the generation gap between the protagonists and their children, who cannot understand how their middle-aged parents can be so out-of-touch. Sophie, Benjamin’s niece and a leftwing academic, rebels against her tribe by marrying an apolitical ex-driving instructor who now teaches on speed awareness courses. What starts as a refreshing change starts to grate, as she suffers her racist mother-in-law and longs secretly for the man from Chicago she met at an academic conference in Marseille. But in the end it is the love between Benjamin and his sister Lois that triumphs over any romantic love, and it is a fitting ending that sees them moving to France together after the Brexit vote.
I highly recommend this excellent book. If you want to understand England better, it’s definitely worth it.