What is the book?
England – as anyone who has glanced at a newspaper in the past four years knows – is stiff-upper-lip deep in an existential funk. But if, as they say, comedy is just tragedy plus the benefit of time, what’s left to do but laugh? That’s Jonathan Coe’s response in Middle England, his spit-out-your-tea funny 2019 novel about modern England’s current identity crisis.
In the Midlands, Benjamin Trotter tries to help his aged father navigate a Britain that seems to have forgotten he exists, while in London, his lefty newspaper columnist friend Doug doesn't understand why his teenage daughter is so damn angry the whole time. Reactionary old timers in golf clubs, a conspiracy theorist who believes the EU are planning a white genocide, fighting party clowns and a super-woke Corbynite student who lodges a complaint against a lecturer are among a long procession of colourful characters who pass along the way.
This curious, compassionate and very funny state-of-the-nation novel is a masterful take down of British self-delusion and the gaping chasm between old and young, rich and poor, and city and rural life.
Why talk about it now?
Tonight (7pm, BBC3), another state-of-the-nation comedy – or state-of-a-tiny-village-in-the-Cotswolds, at least - is back for its third and final series. This Country follows two bored young people as they navigate the unrelenting tedium of life in rural England. Dubbed ‘the best British comedy since The Office’, the mockumentary has won a glut of awards and perfectly walks the tightrope between fall-off-the-sofa hilarity and the absolute horrors of reality for bored youngsters growing up in middle-of-nowhere England.
For Coe, rural culture is too often ignored by media probing the British psyche. ‘I feel you can’t write a book about contemporary England and just set it in London,’ he said last year. ‘And because so many of my books have among their themes the idea of nostalgia and how childhood and teenagerhood form you, I often look back to the first 20 years of my life in the Midlands.’