The Knackered Parents' Book Club reviews 'Middle England' by Jonathan Coe

Hello knackered parents!

We are week eight of lockdown and our worlds have shrunk considerably. I had a sudden urge for a soya hot chocolate from Costa this afternoon (a ridiculously middle- class daydream). The new normal has in fact become normal, which is worrying. Our houses and gardens (if we are lucky enough to have them) have become prisons, or maybe that isn’t the best word. We are not being kept in because of something bad we have done; this isn’t a punishment, although it might feel like one. A place of safety then? That definitely feels more positive. But what of the space outside our homes? The no-mans land of streets, parks and beaches, that we are no longer able to congregate in? Wait, or are we? Only to see one member of your family, if you social distance and don't travel an unreasonable distance... How do we feel about those places and the people we might encounter there when we are forced to venture out for food or for one of our (two?) hour exercise sessions? Yes, there are amazing examples of community spirit out there, but the Coronavirus not only breeds illness, but also a fear and mistrust of others. It is now normal on my daily run to cross over the road to avoid another runner, and swerve around a dog walker as though we were opposing magnets. This is for our own safety of course, but it bothers me that that behaviour now feels normal. Fear of anything is divisive. How do we come back together again when this is all over?

Division and disagreement are at the heart of our book this month ‘Middle England’ by Jonathan Coe. The book spans from 2010 to 2018 and follows a group of friends and family as they navigate life against a backdrop of British political turmoil. Coe explores what being English really means and exposes the deep divides within Britain today. I found it fascinating reading about events that have shaped my life and seeing the effect they have on the various characters. From the mess of the Cameron-Clegg coalition of 2010, the riots of 2011 after a young black man, Mark Duggan, was shot dead, the re-election of a Tory government in 2015 and then the EU referendum in 2016 which led to a majority for leave no one would have expected.

I remember my husband and I laying in bed shocked as we watched the results come in and it sunk in that we would actually be leaving the EU. I felt that something had been taken away from me, I still feel like that. A character in the book called Sophie explains that “she herself had been possessed by the immediate sense, that morning, that a small but important part of her own identity – her modern, layered, multiple identity – had been taken away from her.” One of the things I admired about the book is that Coe manages to show differing opinions. Sophie’s husband sees her as behaving morally superior and uses words like “freedom” when talking about Brexit. There is a gulf between them and this causes series problems for their marriage. If we take Sophie and Ian’s marriage as a metaphor for the whole of British society, can such a divided country come to understand each other and breach that gulf?

I enjoyed “Middle England”. It is thought provoking, relevant and humorous. There were a couple of laugh out loud moments and I didn’t mind that some of the comedy seemed to be a bit contrived (middle aged couple trying to have sex in a cupboard, but she is holding a candle not a penis - classic!) I was left with a sense of worry that an already much divided county had now become even more mistrusting of each other. I hope that time away from the constant focus on immigration and nationalism will allow room for reflection. We live in a global community. We need each other. Denying that is something that we cannot afford to do.

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