December 2023 Open Book Group – Bournville by Jonathan Coe

Thank you to Rob for moderating Bournville by Jonathan Coe.

 

Jonathan Coe is a well-established, prolific, award-winning English author. He has published 14 novels, a children’s book and a biography of English novelist, poet and filmmaker, B.S. Johnson. 

 

Bournville is centred around a quiet, suburb of the same name southwest of Birmingham. It is the home of a famous chocolate factory. For eleven-year-old Mary and her family in 1945, it’s the centre of the world. It is where most of their friends and neighbours have worked for decades. 

 

The novel is split into 7 sections – the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the World Cup Final between England v. West Germany in 1966, the investiture of Prince Charles in 1969, his wedding to Lady Diana Spencer in 1981, and then the Princess’ tragic death in 1997, ending with 2020, which marks the 75th Anniversary of VE Day, and the start of the Covid pandemic,

 

We revisit Mary’s life while the country is focused on these occasions. As she grows older, the narrative moves to her children – Jack, Martin and Peter and later to her granddaughter Lorna. Coe presents a state-of-the-nation state of the novel. Through his characters, he portrays. a wide range of political, racial and sexual views and preferences through 75 years of social change.

 

One pressing question emerges. Will these changing times bring Mary’s family – and their country – closer together, or leave them more adrift and divided than ever before?

 

 17 OBGers gathered for the last meeting of the year. With the promise of Christmas cake and a book set in the home of Cadbury’s chocolate, there was a festive air in the room.

 

Many enjoyed the family saga. We agreed that the book was an easy read. His free-flowing style belled complex plotting and clever satire. We were amused at Coe’s portrayal of British customs and its leaders, particularly Boris Johnson. Mary and Bridget (Mark’s wife) were our favourite characters. Some were disappointed that stretches of their lives were overlooked when jumping across the years. One minute, Mary was courted by two suitors. In the next chapter, she was married with three children to the boring one, Geoffrey. We learn nothing about her life in between. Likewise, further on in the book, Bridget announced she was standing as a MEP. In the next chapter, one line told us she had been an MEP for 20 years. We would have liked to have known more about her life in between. We agreed this demonstrated how Coe had made us care about the characters, Mary’s lonely death in Covid was poignant.

 

We were not convinced that Carl, Mary’s German grandfather would have been accepted by British society directly after the Second World War. Bridget’s experience of racism suffered by her and her family rang true. We referenced Small Island by Andrea Levy (OBG March 2020). The novel depicts the struggle West Indian immigrants, who had fought with Britain during the Second World War, faced when they arrived in Britain in the 1950s. 60 years later, government policy sought to return them to the West Indies as many had arrived without documentation. The so-called Windrush affair was widely condemned and ultimately revoked.

 

For British members of the group or those who had spent considerable time there, Bournville offered a myriad of cultural references. Rob had worked at the Cadbury factory (“The Works“) and attested to the accuracy of the geographical setting. By structuring the book around significant Royal events (and the 1966 World Cup), The discussion quickly evolved into a warm bath of “I remember where I was when…“reminiscences. Even for British anti-Royalist OBGers, it is impossible to escape the effect of these events on British life.

 

The conversation turned when some Australian members noted that they found the saga boring and jingoistic. However, they were interested in learning more about the politics surrounding Brexit, especially the Chocolate Wars. Several had given up after the first chapter. They had no emotional resonance or interest in the atmosphere surrounding royal events.

 

Reading Bournville was like eating a bar of Cadbury’s chocolate. For some one square was enough, while others devoured the whole block with glee.

 

I attached Rob’s comprehensive and insightful moderation notes. 

Bournville by Jonathon Coe

Jonathan Coe is a well-established and prolific English author, having published 14 novels, a children’s book and a biography of English novelist, poet and film maker, B.S. Johnson. My acquaintance with his work began in 2001 with the publication of “The Rotters’ Club”, a coming-of-age novel set in the area of Birmingham where I grew up. The title of the novel is taken from an LP album of the same name by British experimental rock band, Hatfield and the North. The action takes place during the 1970’s and the lives of the three teenage characters are embedded in the social, industrial and political issues of  that period of English history. This preoccupation with social and political issues was continued in Coe’s 1994 novel “What A Carve Up” This work combines a sharp political awareness with an hilarious satirical critique of the worst excesses of Thatcherism and has been widely described as a “state of the nation” novel. In 2018 Coe published the third part of a trilogy that began with “The Rotters’ Club”. Entitled “Middle England” this novel again examines the state of England through political observation and sharp satire. It has been described as a “Brexit  tragicomedy” and one critic commented that “Its threads of fiction and reality interweave to form an ironic lament for a country trapped in an imperialist fantasy. It’s the tale of what happens when nostalgia turns toxic…”

Turning to Coe’s latest work, “Bournville” we can discern the author’s preoccupation with exploring the notion of “Englishness” in a broad political context that spans social and political history of Britain from the end of the Second World War to recent past. Bournville, like Middle England, is a state-of-the-nation novel that seeks to respond to a question asked by a German musician early in the book: “This new path you’ve taken in the last few years – why exactly did you choose it? And why did you choose this man, of all people, to lead you down it?” He is referring to the Brexit vote, and to the now universally mocked and derided Conservative leader, Boris Johnson. The action of the opening chapter, or Prologue, of “Bournville” takes place in Germany just as the first waves of the coronavirus panic were rippling around the world in March 2020 . Lorna Simes, a Birmingham office worker, is in Leipzig to pursue her musical career. Between concerts, she calls her grandmother, Mary, who’s at home in Birmingham, and they discuss the pandemic. Mary has an inoperable aneurysm that she calls her “ticking timebomb” but seems less concerned about the virus outbreak than her granddaughter. From this point in very recent history, the novel spools back 70 years to VE Day in May 1945.This is the first of the seven major segments of the novel, each devoted to a significant juncture, or nodal point, in the history of Britain over the ensuing 75 years. Significantly four of these historical conjunctures are related to the British Royal family, two are associated with the Second World War and the inclusion of the1966 World Cup confirms that the author’s interest lies in delineating a particular sense of British exceptionalism, or to put it more bluntly, a prevailing atmosphere of jingoistic nationalist sentiment.

The first segment of the opening chapter is devoted to a brief, factual account of the history of the Bournville Village, and is straightforward authorial exposition. This is a type of authorial commentary that recurs throughout the novel and one critic found this technique occasionally clumsy, accusing the author of “simply transcribing the contents of his research notebook into the novel”. With the historical and social context sketched in  the reader is introduced to the young Mary’s parents, Doll and Sam, who live in the heart of the original Bournville Village. The declared aim of the Bournville housing project was to recreate the ethos and atmosphere of a traditional English village, and this peaceful environment is heavily underlined in the descriptions of Doll’s daily routine. She is described as “savouring the habitual, resonant silence” and the immediate neighbourhood consists of “reserved, tree lined streets with rows and rows of placid, imperturbable houses”.

As Doll performs her routine household chores, we are made aware that the family is organised around strictly observed gender roles, with Doll performing all the housekeeping duties and Sam chatting over the back fence. Under duress he eventually engages in some desultory gardening activities. Doll is presented as a strong-minded woman who is in complete control of her domestic sphere, and this extends to the parenting of the young Mary, who at this stage is an eleven year old primary school student. Mary articulates her resentment at being forced to study and practice the piano, but Doll is insistent that she practice demanding passages of Beethoven. There is a strong suggestion that this insistence on studying the piano is an aspect of Doll’s petit bourgeois aspirations and sense of social superiority. The lessons, we are informed, cost 10 shillings a week. This is in 1945, when, according to Hansard, the average weekly wage was 4 pounds and 16 shillings. We are also informed, more explicitly that Doll regards Bournville as ‘a high-class neighbourhood” whose residents were “a cut above” and, in an amusing and droll formulation, Coe observes that she  ‘had never felt any contradiction between her three main articles of faith: her Christianity, her socialism and her snobbery”.

Petty snobbery and the acute awareness of the gradations of class and status in English society are persistent themes in the novel and are explored through the life and careers of Mary’s three sons. Sam is a draughtsman, a skilled desk job, and is, as such, a member of what Lenin referred to as “the Labour aristocracy”.

The novel traces Mary’s life story, and those of the associated family members, through vignettes attached to each of the seven historical junctures that constitute the structure of the novel. This narrative strategy is occasionally irritating in that substantial periods of time in the lives of the various characters are summarised in a few terse sentences.

For example, in the section devoted to the 1966 World Cup we are informed that “Mary is now 32 years old. She and Geoffrey have been married 11 years. They have 3 sons, aged ten, eight and five.” Similarly, in a later segment, we learn that Bridget had been an MEP in the European Parliament for twenty years

As a character Mary is perhaps the most fully developed, as befits her central role in the family saga. Like her mother, Doll, she is a dominant matriarchal figure in the domestic environment. However, she is also an accomplished pianist, whose potential I this field is never realized. She also has a rewarding professional life as a teacher, and her love of children in general, and her own extended family offspring is constantly underlined. Her reckless driving habits are also constantly referenced, again hinting at an aspect of her personality that has been suppressed over the years. Just prior to her appallingly lonely and sad death she defiantly drives illegally back to Bournville to participate in a Covid restricted low key celebration of the 75th anniversary of VE Day. The description of Mary’s death is based directly on the death of the author’s mother in similar circumstances, and the anger and pain of this experience created by the inhumanity of the Covid restrictions, is movingly portrayed. Topically the incompetent PM at the time, Boris Johnson, is currently appearing at a Parliamentary enquiry into the government’s management of the Covid pandemic and is likely to be found culpable in relation to tens of thousands of avoidable deaths. His role as a journalist in Brussels, deliberately cultivating the artificial grievances that contributed to the Brexit vote is also satirised in the novel.

There are three aspects of British post war culture and attitudes explored in the novel which I think deserve some attention.

The first is the selective recall which feeds the still extant patriotic mythology that surrounds the legend of Britain’s role in the Second World War. Whilst it is historically accurate that for a year at the beginning of the war Britain was the sole combatant against the Third Reich, the mythology that has evolved represents plucky little England single handedly defeated the might of the Fascist forces. In portraying the celebrations in the Great Stone Inn Coe immerses the reader in the joy and relief felt by British people, but, as he often does in the course of the novel, introduces a subtle counter narrative. When the radio is set up on the bar to listen to the King’s speech there is a reference to some patrons being noisy anti monarchists, and earlier in the day, when Doll, Sam and young Mary are listening to Churchill’s speech on the radio, Coe chooses to quote this section …”Tomorrow we shall pay a particular tribute to our Russian comrades, whose prowess in the field has been one of the grand contributions to the general victory.” Military historians have emphasised the critical role played by America and Russia in the eventual victory, but this aspect of history has been under emphasised in British post war mythology.

The nurturing of this mythology is illustrated by the references to boys‘ comics in the post war years, in which dastardly Huns are constantly yelling “Achtung, Britisher pig” before being comprehensively outwitted and out fought by plucky British troops. The British film industry also produced a stream of similarly themed nostalgic war movies and later pursued the theme of British male superiority in the ludicrously jingoistic Bond franchise.

The second, related theme is the role of the British Royal family in national life and in the prevailing beliefs about what it means to be British. Whilst most of the characters share a generally approving attitude towards the monarchy dissident notes are again introduced. During the television broadcast of Charles and Diana’s wedding Peter, the youngest of Mary’s three sons, argues with his Thatcherite elder brother and alludes to the “contrast between this royalist pomp and circumstance and the riots that had been taking place all month up and down the country… What kind of country … could allow these two worlds to coexist. “

In case we missed the point the author, in one of many expository passages in the novel explains the riots were due to “… some combination of poverty, unemployment, desperation, bad policing, bad community relations and the specific targeting of Black and other minority.’

Reverting to Peter’s views, in an internal monologue reflecting on the ecstatic crowds at the Royal wedding  ‘… What are they cheering for? Why are we supposed to feel happy for these people? Why should the nation, as a whole, feel happy for them? I may throw up.”

In a subtle reply to his own question the author portrays the emotional response to the death of Diana in ways that suggest that the royal soap opera, and her particular role in it, has come to occupy the role previously reserved for public celebrities. In portraying the deeply felt, sobbing grief of the reserved and unemotional Geoffrey, Coe is pointing to the cathartic role that celebrities have in people’s lives. What people are feeling are the unexpressed personal losses and disappointments of their own lives, which the public occasion gives them permission to grieve for.

The third theme, which is again connected to nationalist and patriotic sentiments, is chocolate. Chocolate in the particular form created by Cadbury’s, that is. The Chocolate Wars have their origin in a war time adaptation of the traditional recipe, which requires 100% coca butter. Supply chain difficulties forced Cadbury’s to use a proportion of  vegetable fat, and this becomes a constituent element in the flavour preferred by Cadbury’s customers. It was referred to as “ration chocolate” and is described as tasting of the war. When Britain joins the EEC ( European Economic Community) in 1973 issues arise over the standardisation of chocolate manufacturing regulations, and the major European producers maintain that the adulterated Cadbury version cannot be sold as chocolate within their jurisdictions. This dispute did actually occur, and Coe enjoys himself enormously in using the situation to satirise bureaucratic processes and government jargon. However, he is careful to distance the authorial voice from that of the journalist who is trying to use the issue to stirrup anti EU sentiment. Under the headline BRUSSELLS CHOC HORROR – THEY’VE GOT US BY THE SHORT AND CURLY – WHIRLIES this tabloid scribbler is described as “writing a big, juicy double page piece that would tap into every one of his readers’ passions, all the passions that found them at their most vulnerable and easiest to manipulate: patriotism, wartime nostalgia, longing for childhood, resentment of foreigners.” In this journalistic context there is another archly prophetic reference to Boris Johnson when one of Martin’s EU colleagues warns him to “… watch out for this fellow. He has the potential to cause a great deal of trouble.” Dramatic irony!

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this theme in the novel is the story line development that occurs through Martin Lamb’s employment at Cadbury’s and his relationship with a work colleague, Bridget. The three sons conveniently represent significant and contrasting positions on the political spectrum. Jack, the eldest, is a typically ambitious and self-interested Thatcherite who criticises other members of the family “ …worrying about things you can’t do anything about.” His list of things not worth worrying about includes “…global warming, the future of the BBC, or what’s happening in Palestine, or what’s happening in Syria”. He represents a strain of self-satisfied and insular thinking that is in many ways epitomised by the idealised Bournville Village.

Martin is an educated cautiously liberal social democrat, who joins the SDP, a centre right group that broke way from the Labour Party in 1981. This split was, in part, because the SDP was pro EU and  Labour’s conference adopted an anti-EU platform. To complete the contrast the youngest brother, Peter, is an accomplished musician who moves way to London where he lives a modern cosmopolitan life and, having finally come to terms with his sexual preferences, is openly gay. Interestingly the sexual encounter between Peter and Gavin, a fellow musician, is the only graphic description of sexual activity that occurs in the novel. Stylistically the relevant passage is made more strikingly confronting by being intercut, in a highly cinematic way, with Tony Blair reading from the Hymn to Love from the first Corinthians as part of Diana’s televised funeral service.

Peter’s acceptance of his sexuality is one of the many markers of social change that are an important aspect of the novel.

Bridget also represents changing social patterns in that she is a black Glaswegian woman whose career path contrasts sharply with Mary’s relative domesticity and focus on family life. We do not learn that Bridget is black until Martin produces a photo and there is an awkward and horrified reaction. Geoffrey is revealed as a irredeemable racist and the rest of the family tolerate his views and do not challenge them. As a competent professional in Martin’s work environment Bridget provides him with largely unacknowledged expertise and support in his role in Europe. Again, as an implicit contrast to Mary, Bridget refuses to allow Martin to capitalise on her work, and when he suggests running as an MEP, she firmly points out that she is the better candidate. As we discover, unfortunately without any contextual detail, she goes on to a career as an representative in the EU Parliament.

She also refuses to talk to Jack, nor does she tolerate the family complicity around Geoffrey’s racism. In a confrontational scene, significantly set at the Yachting Pool that features in an earlier segment of the novel, Bridget has this to say to Jack in relation to their different positions on the Brexit referendum.

“It just made everything clearer than ever. Where we stood… let’s be honest, even she, even Mary, never stood up for me against him(husband Geoffrey, who was an irredeemable racist)…she never even talked to him about Pater, he died not even admitting that his own son was gay… All for a quiet life. Also the sacred family could be preserved, as if there were nothing underneath the surface that stank. Stank to high heaven.”

Whilst the author describes and analyses aspects of a smug and narrow minded “Britishness”, or perhaps more accurately “Englishness” there is also a strong critique of these values threaded through the novel.

Lorna, Martin and Brigid’s daughter has chosen to live in Handsworth, a suburb on the opposite side of Birmingham, and a place that reflects the vibrancy of a changed Britain in general and Birmingham in particular.
“This area had a reputation for being unsafe after dark but during the daytime Lorna always loved it: there were shops and cafes run by Sikhs, Muslims, Bengalis, Jamaicans… Poles too, until recently.” This cultural vibrancy provides an implicit contrast to quiet complacency of Bournville, which is reemphasised in the closing section of the novel, when Shoreh, the recently arrived Iranian  refugee, reprises Doll’s enjoyment of the suburban somnolence, punctuated by the noise of the children in the nearby school.

She also repeats the mantra “Everything changes, and everything stays the same”. The assertion here seems to be that social, industrial and political realities change over time, but what stays the same are basic human concerns, particularly family ties and ambitions, regardless of people’s racial or geographical origins. However, in contrast to this tritely humanistic aphorism there is an ominous warning in Bridget’s final remark to her daughter. Lorna asserts that Mary’s life was “blameless” and “that’s enough, isn’t it?”. Brigid observes that she used to think so, but in an ominously prophetic reference to the rancorous growth of the populist far right in the UK, she observes that “There comes a time when everybody has to pick a side” and that “we’ll all have to do it, pretty soon.”

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