Nate of the Station

Nick Richardson

  • 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.

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