“Sinking giggling into the sea” Satire and politics

The Observer 8 November 2015

A few years ago, Jonathan Coe denounced the dominance of comedy in British culture. A country where Have I Got News for You had political significance was in danger of sinking “giggling into the sea”, as Peter Cook had once warned. At best, political comedy encouraged an easy cynicism about everyone in public life. At worst, it substituted sniggers for protests. It certainly didn’t change society. Boris Johnson and other slippery political operators responded by adopting comic personas of their own, and neutered well-founded attacks by showing they could give and take jokes as well as any standup.

The critique reappears in Coe’s state-of-the-nation satire, Number 11. A detective investigating the murder of celebrity comedians reads an anonymous blogpost. Comedians who turn corrupt politicians and rightwing newspaper columnists into jokes, the post thunders, made the “fucking Guardian-reading Pinot Grigio swilling middle-class wankers feel they have to do NOTHING except wait for the next crappy one-liner”.

A good argument, which Coe believes to be true. It is spoilt only by his decision to make the detectives, who arrest the comedian-killing blogger, caricatures straight out of a sitcom, and put them in a state-of-the-nation satire that is, well, a satire.

Coe seems to be having it both ways elsewhere in the novel. The widow of an academic, who could not cope with the commercialised modern world, mocks his longing for a pre-Thatcherite England. “Life was better, simpler, easier” then. Voters respected politicians by treating them with deference, and politicians respected voters by giving them a decent welfare state and jobs for life. The widow is so determined that her son won’t romanticise his childhood, she shows him no affection.

Leftwing nostalgia for the lost golden age of social democracy was never based wholly on fact. Margaret Thatcher would not have won three elections if it had been. But it was sincerely felt by millions who opposed the Conservatives in the 1980s and 1990s, not least by Jonathan Coe.

Number 11 is the sequel to his 1994 novel What a Carve Up!, which was among the most brilliant and most vicious of the satires of Thatcherism. Various members of the greed-driven Winshaw family destroy the best of the old England. They serve the Conservative government, deal in arms, slash the NHS, and pump out Tory propaganda in the tabloids. With the Conservatives seemingly in power for ever, the only way Coe could imagine stopping them was by having a killer slaughter the Winshaw family.

In 2015, his Number 11 has the same nostalgia for the innocence of the past, although this time round Tony Blair is to blame for its loss, apparently. The children of the Winshaws and their hangers-on are once again destroying the best of England. They deny NHS patients treatment in the name of saving taxpayers’ money, while refusing to pay taxes themselves. Once again, Coe is so unable to imagine a political response to the overweening power of money he resorts to murder.

This time, a Romanian migrant, who makes a living walking the dogs of London’s super rich, finishes off assorted Winshaws by turning into a giant spider and dragging their bodies to the excavated basement of a Knightsbridge mansion.

Coe’s descriptions of characters slipping uncomprehendingly into poverty are worthy of George Gissing
An England that needs a Tory-eating Transylvanian spider woman to redeem it is in a worse state than we imagined. And Coe is in some trouble too. An academic studying Number 11 might describe his equivocations as “nuanced” or “playful”. But I yearned for Coe to show more self-confidence. If he believes that political comedy is an anaesthetic, he should live by his principles and refuse to write it. If he believes that a conspiracy of Thatcherite plutocrats destroyed the innocence of a social democratic golden age, why does he need to rig the argument by turning women who doubt the past was better than the present into monsters who mistreat their children?

Coe’s postmodern back-covering would destroy the books of lesser writers. Fortunately, his many virtues make his work indestructible. No modern novelist is better at charting the precariousness of middle-class life. Rose-tinted or not, Coe’s nostalgia allows him to understand an obvious truth that too few in power grasp: most people want a home, a steady job, and reliable care when they are sick and old, but find that in modern Britain, it can take a heroic effort to realise these ordinary aspirations. You barely think about your security when you have it, and are as much astonished as outraged when it vanishes.

Coe’s descriptions of characters slipping uncomprehendingly into poverty are worthy of George Gissing. The mother of one of his heroines is a librarian, who years before had been in a one-hit-wonder band. She yearns for the stardom she never quite achieved, even though her agent hasn’t returned her calls in years, and hardly anyone remembers her moment of fame. As austerity takes hold, the council cuts her work at the library. She finds she cannot afford to heat her home, and takes to travelling round and round Birmingham by bus to stay warm. Her redemption seems to come when the desperate producers of I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! call her to the outback after a genuine star cancels at the last minute. But because she is old and ugly and unknown, they cut the footage to turn her from a kind woman into a shrewish killjoy. Transformed into a cartoon villain by “reality” television, she returns to Britain to find that strangers abuse her when she once again takes to the warmth of the buses.

Coe deftly uses the brutality of the insults she receives on Twitter to reflect the brutality of wider society. He deftly, too, ties together the lives of the super rich with the lives of the servants they foolishly assume have no inner lives or thoughts of their own. His imaginative sympathy allows you to forgive him his double standards, and find his excesses reasonable. After all, it is surely as reasonable to place your hopes for an egalitarian England on Transylvanian spider women poisoning the plutocracy as on Jeremy Corbyn winning a general election.

Number 11 is published by Viking (£16.99). Click here to buy it for £12.99