One of my all time favourite books is What a Carve Up, Jonathan Coe’s novel from 1994.
I have read it several times, though sadly it seems to have disappeared from my giant book pile – I am a tragic hoarder of books and have to clear them out on a fairly regular basis to stop myself being buried alive in them.
The book was written in 1994 and is probably one of the best critiques of the Thatcher years ever written. It is a novel about power and privilege – the book shows how the truly foul Winshaw family have their tentacles in pretty much ever arena of human life, from tabloid newspapers, to film production and factory farming. The book looks at how their behaviour contaminates the world around them – it is a very funny book at times, but a happy read it is not.
I remember when I read the book in the mid 90s, it seemed like the values that fuelled Thatcherism were on the wane. The property market had crashed and the recession of the early 90s made the greed is good mantra of the late 80s seem a bit daft. Of course, that was total bollocks – the values of Thatcher never, ever went away. My generation was just too naive and hedonistic to realise that until a lot, lot later.
Fast forward 20 years and what we have now is Thatcherism on steroids. Everything that hasn’t been nailed down is up for sale – the latest target is obviously council housing, which I have written a whole book about, as well as banging on incessantly in this blog.
Fortunately Jonathan Coe is still writing – not that he has ever stopped – and a couple of days ago, I devoured his latest book Number 11, pretty much in one sitting. It reminded me a bit of John Lanchester’s Capital and Sebastian Faulks’s A Week in December, but it is much, much better.
Number 11 – the title refers amongst other things to a reception hosted by George Osborne – revisits the Winshaw family and shows how their web of power corrupts and contaminates modern life. They are still involved in factory farming and tabloid newspapers, but now also make reality TV and specialise in tax avoidance. Their power is if anything more terrifying than before – Coe goes a bit mental by including a kind of B movie sub plot where giant spiders live in the pit excavated by builders digging an 11 storey banker’s basement in Chelsea. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure about this particular plot twist, but I do understand the metaphor. Power spins webs around our lives and we are filled with a sense of fear and dread as to what it might do next.
What I liked the most is the way in which the book explores the idea of ‘choice’, a word that is at the heart of right wing politics. It questions the nostalgic view of the the recent past – the 60s and 70s when a more paternalistic state made choices for us – but also shows how few choices people have when the market runs riot.
Number 11 is the Britain of the bedroom tax, of food banks and student debt for the masses and private jets, dog walkers and fortress like houses in Chelsea for the wealthy. We also see the creation of an extended servant class (also a theme of Lanchester’s book) – the only real employment Oxford graduate Rachel Wells can find is as a private tutor to the horrific Gunn family. She lives cut off from her employers behind a mirrored door, yet is seen as a status symbol because of her elite education. We are basically talking about a world that is closer to Victorian England in its social structure than the Britain of my childhood or even 20 years ago. Only with better technology.
I could write about this book forever and it has inspired me to work harder with my own writing. It shows how powerful stories can be in presenting a truth and I loved the way Coe weaves real life events – like the death of Dr David Kelly – into his narrative. Great fiction shows the patterns that lie hidden in our existence and it makes us stop and think in a way the tide of information that masquerades as news does not.
My only criticism is the lack of hope in the novel. Giant spiders aside, I wanted signs of resistance. I wanted to see that there are alternatives to the world of greed – which I genuinely think they are. I think there are a lot of wonderful people doing things which are outside of money and market forces – such as my amazing friend Lucie and Jon Glackin at Streets Kitchen – and as times have grown tougher, there has been a resurgence in the need for collective behaviour. I have also been inspired by reading Paul Mason’s book Post Capitalism, which looks at how the free flow of information and creation of a parallel sharing economy will produce change to the current status quo.
Maybe I am living on fantasy island, but my New Year’s resolution is not to give up hope. To keep going with my own dreams to write and get published and to support and connect with the many inspiring people who are out there. This year for me has been about people – I am the luckiest person alive when it comes to people. I think we all underestimate ourselves; we have so much potential and together we can achieve so much.
Cue the music:
Onward and upward for 2016