“Preaching to converts no longer excites me”

By | May 7, 2023

It appeared on the London scene 15 years after the holy monsters Rushdie, McEwan, Amis, Ishiguro and became popular in Britain and abroad. 13 of her novels are published in Greece. In Exarchia they greet him, in Pagrati he chats with Tsakalotos and Sakellaridis, and the public queues to sign in “Bournville”. Jonathan Coe deconstructs the mentality of the British middle class by playing the Greek strings like no other European writer.

Walking into Jonathan Coe’s London home, you’re greeted by a guitar: “It’s a bit dusty these days,” he remarked when we met a few days ago. Then you see a large wall of vinyl records, the piano, and a mini sofa.

He welcomes you in his socks and confesses that when he feels tired he reads a few pages of The Lord of the Rings; after all, he graduated from the same school as Tolkien in Birmingham. After the presentation of “Bournville”, in Athens (4/28, Megaro Musikis, organized by Polis and ETERON publications), I showed him a photo from 2011 when we first met him with Anteos Chrysostomidis for the show “Antennas de nuestro time”. . “Ooooh! I’m wearing the same jacket!” he said awkwardly. Who knows; However, he hasn’t changed a bit since then.

Direct look, shy smile, discreet presence, but his comments when he speaks are specific and sharp. Coe is not a public intellectual, like some of his European contemporaries. The species does not thrive in Great Britain. “I think I get closer to the truth with literature than with editorials, because I can express what I want with more nuances.”

“Bournville” (his neighborhood in his youth) is the culmination of a path that he carved with penetrating novels about the “state of the nation” after the war, until his departure from the European Union. But this time she focuses more on the attitudes that shape cultural, social, and political choices. The embroidery of her on the characters is unique. From this angle, he follows the mutations of the middle class and “all that caper” (all that caper) in three generations of the Lamb family until the lonely and painful death in the pandemic of his mother, Janet Coe or, failing that, Mary Lamb.

● “Today, I don’t think you can stay neutral forever, that’s the point. There comes a time when everyone is forced to choose a side”. This is how “Bournville” closes, with a powerful message from Bridget, a black British lawyer, former member of the European Parliament, who has three chocolate children with the Half of the Lambs, and she just got fired.

“Bridget is mainly about racism, which is still an open topic like many others in the UK. However, I specifically wrote this sentence in March 2022 when Russia had invaded Ukraine: an event that should have worried the whole world. .. In particular, in the context of the novel, I wanted to highlight the conflictive climate in Britain – people are now very uncomfortable with polarisation.

The smallest issue is politicized, even coronavirus vaccines. It’s something that exhausts you, but maybe it’s necessary. We should have expected it when we saw the first results in 2016, that 52%-48%, in the Brexit referendum. The kingdom is divided, as the title in the Greek version says, and the contradictions were before our eyes, but as a country we never faced them. While Mary Lamb, the character that refers to my mother, yes. She said that “we need to talk about this.”

● Yes, but is it time to go one step further? “Which side are you on?”, which the American Pete Seeger sang in the 60s, in the middle of the battle for rights…

“Side” may not be the most appropriate word today. Because the arguments are many and each one has many interpretations. What is needed is a discussion, but not in the insulting and aphoristic way that is done on FB. Have a discussion that gets into the hard stuff, be smart, not witty, and civil.”

● For an international audience you became famous for angry novels, critical of Thatcherism, Blairism and their political-social imprint, such as the “Club of Nothings” trilogy with the homonymous novel about 1970s Birmingham, written in your 40s (2001), with “Closed Circle” (2004) and “Central England” (2018). But you also wrote more introspective works that you call “Anarchy novels.” “Like the Rain Before It Falls” (2007), the unfairly overlooked “Expo 58” (2013), the reflection of the authorship “Mr. Wilder and Me” (2020), and now “Bournville”. How do you feel about “Riots”?

“The ‘malaise’ expresses the underlying discontent of the population. It started before the mid-80s when I was in university and has a political meaning. But it also refers to something personal, to an internal intolerance with the state of my life, to a lingering feeling of dissatisfaction that I dealt with writing. However, “Unrest” was also the title of a landmark record for me in my teens, recorded in 1974 by the pioneering left-wing jazz band Henry Cow. What I’ve released so far the date stems from those ideas of mine from the 1970s and 1980s when I was growing up in Birmingham.

It was the second most populous city in Britain and yet it had no arrogance, it had modesty, it had a sense of inferiority to the capital and this cultivated a self-deprecating attitude, a useful virtue, but also a strong sense of humour. I may have got a scholarship to a very good, non-private school, which opened the doors to Cambridge, the temple of the establishment, and from there to the London literary scene, but it was Birmingham that shaped me. And I’m proud of that.”

● However, her writing has evolved in various directions since 1994, when she established herself with the satirical novel “What a Good Booty.” Her criticism of the policies of Thatcher and the Conservatives and the interests they served up until the first bombing of Iraq was unrelenting…

“I no longer see myself as a satirist, and I am no longer motivated to preach to the converted. That novel was addressed to an audience that largely shared my views. In “Middle England,” which illuminated the electrified climate of contention before Britain’s departure from the EU, I followed a different path.

Although I strongly supported staying in the EU, I tried to sound impartial. And there were my readers, not many, who voted for Brexit. Today I am not interested in a war literature. I prefer to observe life, people and political events, their direct or indirect impact, and provoke reflection. I wanted “Bournville” to present a genteel portrait of Britain that works in a subversive way.

So I present Britain in a way that wins the trust of the reading public, creating this false sense of security that reassures them. Until at some point he faces a different reality that will force him to take it seriously. This is the meaning of the homosexual scene between two men that takes place in an apartment while the television shows the funeral of Princess Diana. Through the case of Peter, Mary’s third son, who, many years later, reveals his homosexuality, I analyze the evolution of British society.

● Four of the seven chapters have their starting point in the showcase of royalty, at coronations, weddings or funerals. But these facts, although they attracted millions of glances, did not act as a unifying link in society. What generates inequality in multicultural western democracies? Class or cultural differences?

“My novel is about the middle class, and it only glimpses the working class, and few the upper class. But the British class system is everywhere, we breathe it in every day, it hasn’t changed at all in the last 75 years and it will take a long time to change. We still have an unelected House of Lords, and we will have a king who, at 74, in a moment of crisis, is willing to spend a hundred million pounds on his (still today) coronation ceremony. …

That, if I’m not mistaken, people, especially the youth, have little desire to see. At the European level, Great Britain is one of the countries with the greatest economic inequalities. Their wealth is concentrated only at the top and does not spread to society. It is a situation that has traumatized her very deeply, I spoke about them in the novel “Number 11” (2015).

On the contrary, in “Bournville”, following my characters, and among them my mother, I focus more on cultural phenomena and the social changes they caused. My mother was conservative not in the party sense but as a person. She didn’t question the world as she was, nor the values ​​she grew up with. But when she finally did, she followed her instincts and she was led to a humanity beyond politics, and I mean that in a good way, which is to say, to a deeper understanding of others.

I clarify this because his three sons in the novel have different political views. Bridget’s husband Martin is a socialist, Jack supported Brexit and Peter takes an alternative path. So Mary-Janet had nothing to do with those cynics or apathetics who say that politicians “are all the same.” This is rarely true and yet reminiscent of Trump and Boris Johnson!

● He systematically criticizes the problematic political role of some journalists in his novels. But this time you paint a hilarious as well as disturbing picture of a Boris with no last name, “unruly blonde hair who looked like a mop,” who was “driving around Brussels in a red Alfa Romeo.” The Daily Telegraph had hired him as a reporter on the EU’s ‘chocolate war’, but he treated ‘everything as a joke and falsified all the news by presenting the proceedings of the European Parliament as part of an elaborate conspiracy to quash all plans for Britain. “. How are things today?

“Britain today is dominated by bad journalism that has political biases. Most of the media lean to the right and support the Conservatives. Even the BBC, which had a reputation for providing factual information, is under attack from both sides. We have reached a point where everything is being questioned, and while the journalistic investigation has been done, while the facts have been recorded, some alternative facts always appear in front of them, so that reality is perceived through a lens distorter”.

● The refrain in the critical stages of his book is that “everything changes and everything stays the same.” What do you think?

“I think they can and will change. But as Mary Lamb’s 30-year-old conversion showed, the process will be slow. That’s why there’s this sense of futility. The younger generation has a different set of values ​​than us who think differently. “She is impatient. But we don’t listen to the young people, we don’t see them, we don’t have a give and take or a dialogue with them. I feel lucky that my daughters continue to be a window to the new reality for me.”

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