Nate of the Station
- Number 11 by Jonathan Coe
Viking, 351 pp, £16.99, November 2015, ISBN 978 0 670 92379 3
On 18 July 2003, the body of the weapons inspector David Kelly was found in the woods on Harrowdown Hill in Oxfordshire, two months after he’d revealed that the Blair administration had exaggerated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein. Rachel Wells, the central character in Number 11 and the narrator of the first of its five overlapping stories, was ten when Kelly’s body was discovered. She was staying with her grandparents. ‘On television the reporter was talking in a portentous voice over helicopter shots of a verdant and wooded patch of English countryside. On the screen and in the room, there was an atmosphere I had never encountered (or at least noticed) before: charged, expectant, filled with shock and apprehension.’ Her grandfather says of Tony Blair, as soon as the broadcast is over: ‘Well, that’s that, then, isn’t it? He’s got blood on his hands now.’ Another character, later in the book, says that Kelly’s death was the moment when his generation lost ‘their political innocence’: ‘None of us could pretend any longer that we were being governed by honourable people.’ But the event is not a point on which the plot of Number 11 pivots. Rachel isn’t awakened into activism and the novel seems uninterested in the truth of what happened to Kelly. The scene of his death ‘in that remote woodland, silent and unvisited’ is used to set the novel’s mood, and repeatedly to re-establish it. Rachel says that Kelly’s death sent ‘ripples of unease and mistrust throughout the country’, transforming Britain, making it ‘unquiet, haunted’. Number 11 is a kind of sequel to What a Carve Up!, Coe’s satirical masterpiece of 1994, but it’s very different in tone: the raging satire has been dampened down, leaving melancholy edged with dread. It’s drizzly, the forecast might say, with a chance of supernatural doom.
Number 11 follows What a Carve Up! in the sense that the 2010s are a sequel to the 1980s: we’re living in the Britain that the Winshaws, the family on whom What a Carve Up! centres, built for us. Coe used the Winshaws to show how neoliberal ideology became a tool used by powerful individuals for lining their own pockets. Henry Winshaw, a politician who advises Thatcher on health policy, is the family’s main ideologue. His enthusiasm for the Qaly, ‘one of my own personal favourites’, is indicative of his fatuous mercenarism: ‘The idea is that you take the cost of an operation and then calculate not just how many years’ life it saves, but what the quality of the life is. You simply put a figure on it. Then you can work out the cost-effectiveness of each operation … Quality is quantifiable!’ Henry conspires with his brother Thomas, a dodgy banker who is quick to recognise ‘the huge profits which were to be made from the government’s privatisation programme’. Then there’s Dorothy Winshaw, the owner of a company that produces cheap meat products and the developer of a small guillotine with hot blades for ‘debeaking’ chickens; Roddy, the art gallery owner and sleazebag, who seduces female artists by promising to further their careers; Hilary, the inflammatory tabloid columnist, who rails against Arthur Scargill and the NUM; and Mark, the arms dealer, purveyor of Zyklon B to Saddam Hussein. What a Carve Up! ends as Number 11 begins, with Britain wading into war in Iraq.
The Winshaws don’t make many appearances in Number 11, but rather like the ghost of David Kelly they haunt its edges. Britain’s depressed condition is shown to be a consequence of policies that they had a hand in – or, more precisely, of an attitude to life that they embodied. The book that the journalist Michael Owen wrote about the Winshaws in What a Carve Up! is given as a present to Rachel, who is told that it will help her understand the forces that shaped the country now being ravaged by austerity. The novel’s second section concentrates on Rachel’s friend Alison, whose mum’s hours working at the local library in Birmingham are being reduced because of government cuts. Alison’s mum ends up at the food bank. In the third section, Rachel is at Oxford University, where, in the dining hall of her college, there’s a portrait of a former fellow, none other than Henry Winshaw, sitting at a desk in front of the words ‘FREEDOM, COMPETITION, CHOICE’. Winshaw turns out to have been a mentor to the current rector of the college, Lord Lucrum, who sets up a committee called the Institute for Quality Valuation, which specialises in evaluating things that aren’t usually thought of – or haven’t yet been thought of – as having a price. Rachel’s tutor, Laura, ends up working as a consultant for it, calculating the value to the country of its unexplained mysteries, beginning with the Loch Ness Monster. The state is being rolled back, just as the Winshaws hoped it would be, and everything, including the Loch Ness Monster, is up for sale. The Winshaws’ disciples are making backroom deals at 11 Downing Street. Even Qalys make an appearance: Rachel is recommended medication for her grandfather, but told that he can only have it if he goes private. The treatment doesn’t guarantee Rachel’s grandfather enough Qalys for the NHS to pay for it.
Flesh-and-blood Winshaws appear in just one of the novel’s sections, the only one written for laughs. ‘The Winshaw Prize’ stars Josephine Winshaw-Eaves, the daughter of Hilary Winshaw and Sir Peter Eaves, a newspaper editor. Like her mother, Josephine is a tabloid columnist in the Katie Hopkins mould. She attends an awards ceremony for a prize her family has sponsored and put its name to – a prize, ridiculously, for the best prize (it goes to the Prix Médicis Etranger). Alison’s girlfriend, who’s working as a waitress, gets chatting to Josephine, hoping to turn the meeting into a career opportunity for Alison, an up and coming artist. She tells Josephine about Alison, including the facts that she’s black, gay and on benefits. The upshot is a column with the headline ‘The Art of Deception: black, disabled lesbian on benefits is actually black, disabled lesbian benefits cheat.’ Alison ends up in prison.
‘The Winshaw Prize’ opens with a quote from William Cowper which reminds us that satire can be ‘either grave or gay’ – Number 11 is mostly grave – but goes on to bemoan satire’s ineffectiveness: ‘What vice has it subdued? whose heart reclaim’d/By rigour? or whom laughed into reform?/Alas! Leviathan is not so tamed.’ The chapter concerns a plot to assassinate the comedian who is presenting the award, because he is a satirist, and satirists only make things worse. The assassin agrees with Freud’s theory of laughter: it ‘takes energy and releases or dissipates it, thereby rendering it ineffective’. ‘Political humour is the very opposite of political action,’ the assassin has written on his blog: ‘Not just its opposite, but its mortal enemy.’ He is foiled in his attempt on the comedian’s life by a policeman called PC Nathan Pilbeam, an intellectual who works out who the prospective murderer is by immersing himself in the theory of comedy, from Aristotle to Kierkegaard. The joke is that in real life, intellectuals are no more use than comedians. Both the policeman and the comedian, whose audience the assassin characterises as ‘Radio 4-listening, Guardian-reading, Pinot Grigio-swilling middle-class wankers’, look like Coe caricaturing aspects of himself. Both characters draw attention to the gap between the power the political novelist believes himself to possess and his work’s real influence. PC Pilbeam’s nickname at work is ‘Nate of the Station’, and the novel switches between being a State of the Nation novel and a Nate of the Station novel – a work of satire and a satire of itself.
The novel’s second section, ‘The Comeback’, is its most depressing. Alison’s mum, Val, who had some success ‘12 years ago’ as a member of a girl band, appears on a reality TV show in which celebrity has-beens are flown out to the Australian jungle and humiliated. Val is very nice, but her sojourn on the show is edited to make her look as unattractive as possible and the TV audience turns against her – it doesn’t take long for her to be voted off. Coe uses the episode partly to make a point about the failure of social media to live up to its utopian promise. ‘Omg she is so dull’; ‘How many blowjobs did you have to give to get on this show’; ‘Anvil faced mare #getridofVal’: these are a few of the tweets sent to the Twitter account Alison sets up for her mother. Alison and Rachel fall out after Rachel accidentally sends Alison a message on Snapchat that reads: ‘We’re doing the incest thing tonight! Right up your street I would have thought!’ Alison has just told Rachel she’s gay. Rachel meant to type: ‘We’re doing the nicest thing.’ Social media hasn’t made us more co-ordinated, these incidents suggest, it’s just made it easier for us to insult one another and increased the opportunities for mutual misunderstanding. State of the Nation. But the deceptive editing of Val’s stint on reality TV also draws attention to the artifice behind Coe’s storytelling: writing a novel involves being selective with your material, and writers, like the TV show’s producers, can’t be trusted to tell us the truth. Is the world really the way Coe tells us it is? Nate of the Station.
The rich characters are less straightforwardly evil in Number 11 than they were in What a Carve Up! and at times Coe makes us feel a bit sorry for them. A recurrent theme is the mess wealth can make of families. Josephine embarks on her tabloid career in order to impress her father, whose contempt for her is unaffected by her efforts: ‘She regularly sent Sir Peter links to the latest entries, but he almost never responded, even though she was doing her best to imitate the tone and content of his own newspaper, and to carry on her mother’s tradition of ruthless, instantaneous opinion-forming.’ Josephine does what she does because of a desire for parental affection, rather than ideological inclination or innate badness. The rich family whose kids Rachel ends up tutoring is even more dysfunctional. The father, Sir Gilbert Gunn, is never at home and has minimal contact with his kids and second wife, a Kazakh former supermodel. They’re rootless: Rachel ‘could never be entirely sure when they were even at home: if, indeed, their London residence was their “home” in any meaningful sense’. They’re also aware of, and embarrassed by, the extent to which their wealth has alienated them from society. ‘I want you to turn my son,’ Sir Gilbert tells Rachel, ‘into a normal person.’ This isn’t something that would have troubled the Winshaws.
There’s not a lot of cheeriness in Number 11, but when there is it’s the poor characters who are having the fun. They can at least enjoy an intimate family life of the sort the Gunns can’t imagine: Rachel with her grandparents, Alison with her mum and her partner’s family. Towards the end of the book, one of the Gunns’ friends, Freddie, a tax avoidance expert and disciple of Thomas Winshaw’s, tells Rachel that everyone should get the chance to ride in a Bentley because it would give them ‘something to aspire to’. But no one in their right mind would desire the sort of life he leads. Freddie has a crisis of conscience at one point, and nearly dobs himself in to HMRC, but is bested by his appetites and comes to a sticky end. Lady Gunn also seems to be at the mercy of desires that have banished reason. She is having an 11-floor basement built. When Rachel asks the project manager why Lady Gunn wants an 11th floor he replies: ‘Nothing. She can’t think of anything that she wants it for.’ These people don’t look like masters of the universe.
The philosopher Nick Land has described capitalism as a cybernetic ‘technosentience’ of which we’re auxiliary organs. The market is using us for its own ends. ‘A Cartesian howl is raised: people are being treated as things!’ Number 11, too, often gives the impression that money itself is the monster, and that we’re powerless to stop it. As Livia, the Gunns’ dogwalker, puts it: ‘Just as a certain famous Romanian used to suck the blood from his victims’ necks, now it is money itself that has begun to drain the life out of this great city.’ The difference in mood between Coe’s two big satirical novels reflects a difference between the way the world feels now and the way it felt in the 1990s. The desperate efforts of Western governments, post-2008, to save capitalism at any cost have made it obvious that the system has slipped our grip. That’s why horror – which is the genre the ending of Number 11 most closely approximates – has become a more apt register to describe the world than satire. The novel’s final section is introduced with George Osborne’s notorious line from the autumn 2009 Tory conference: ‘We are all in this together.’ The book suggests two different answers to this. In satire mode it says bullshit: the banks were bailed out and now the poor are paying for it. In horror mode it answers with a question: ‘We’re in something together, but what is it?’ Both What a Carve Up! and Number 11 end with a massacre, but in the earlier book it’s perpetrated by humans; in Number 11 it’s by giant spiders.