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Jonathan Coe interview: exposing the real rotters

This article is over 20 years, 3 months old
JONATHAN COE is a popular author whose best known novels give a humorous account of 1970s and 1980s Britain – he spoke to JUDY COX about his writing and politics.
Issue 1791

DO YOU feel tempted to write a satirical novel about Blair’s Britain, as you did Margaret Thatcher’s Britain?

I AM looking forward to writing that. It is where the sequel to my current novel The Rotters’ Club is going. The horrible young Thatcherite in the new book will grow into a Blairite whizz-kid MP for a West Midlands constituency.

The new book won’t be as blatantly polemical as my earlier novel What a Carve Up! because Tony Blair’s Britain is a more slippery subject. I think we are living in very Thatcherite times now. That’s not just in terms of economic policies, but because of the political manoeuvring and corruption that goes on behind the scenes. Blair’s government seems so remote.

Perhaps this is because we are in a personality-led era of politics and they are not very interesting personalities. There does seem to be collusion between the government and the media to keep real issues out of the frame. The debates seem completely irrelevant to people struggling to bring their kids up and going to work.

THE PRESS has been talking about a return to the union militancy of the 1970s. Do you see any signs of this?

WE HAVE had the 1970s revival in fashion and music, so it would be nice to have a revival in militancy. The whole idea that workers’ best weapon is to withdraw their labour power seems to have been forgotten by the left, just like Blair managed to drop the word socialism.

I think the public sector workers would find they would get a lot more support from the public than the media suggests. This is what happened to the miners during their strike in 1984-5. Everyone knows that the real problem is management not frontline workers. Unfortunately, there is another aspect of the return to the 1970s.

I did a lot of research about the growth of the National Front in the 1970s and I see it all happening again with the British National Party. Anti-racism is a strong theme of The Rotters’ Club. I was going to follow this up in the next book after the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence. But now I think I will have to write about the BNP in Burnley and Oldham.

THERE SEEMS to be a rise in the number of anti-capitalist novels at the moment. Do you think the political novel is making a comeback?

MY NOVELS are mainstream books. This is both a strength and a weakness. It means I get a big audience, but it also means that the political content of my books can be glossed over and ignored. I think it is difficult to be a writer and be an activist.

I have great admiration for writers like Arundhati Roy who concentrate on being political activists. But I have chosen to write.

The real ray of light at the moment is the anti-globalisation movement. But it is diffuse and not rooted in particular communities in the same way that the miners were in their 1984 strike. I think it makes it easier for the media to dismiss the movement against globalisation. The Guardian said recently that it was its policy to simply ignore protests and demonstrations.

The follow-up I am planning to The Rotters’ Club will probably cover the period from 1999 to around 2003, so the story is still unfolding. And that is very exciting.

The Rotters’ Club is out in paperback at the end of this month.


A few good reads from Jonathan Coe

What A Carve Up! (£6.99) is a funny and powerful attack on Thatcher’s Britain that was first published in 1994. The loathsome upper class Winshaw family commission an author to write their family history.

Each family member is exposed in all their sordid detail before they get their final come-uppance.

The House of Sleep (£6.99) is also set in Britain in the 1980s and 90s. The house of the title is a former university residence that has been turned into a clinic for sleep disorders.

Dr Dudden is a powerful Thatcher figure trying to ‘cure’ patients of needing to sleep, which he sees a disease of the weak.

The Rotters’ Club (£7.99) is based on Jonathan Coe’s own teenage years in 1970s Birmingham. It is about four schoolboys facing adolescence in the midst of union militancy in the strike at Grunwick, the rise of racism, the Birmingham pub bombings and the growth of the punk scene.


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