Brexit: an assault on British identity

British writer Jonathan Coe (centre) chats with New Europe's Dan Alexe (right) and the Charlie Hebdo journalist Antonio Fischetti (left).

Interview with the UK writer Jonathan Coe


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After a British writer (Kazuo Ishiguro) got the Nobel prize this year, New Europe’s Dan Alexe talked to another great British writer, Jonathan Coe.

New Europe: Do you think the digital era changed literature? Did it bring with it a devaluation of the word?

Jonathan Coe: My impression is that, certainly, the young people are reading less. Just from a very limited sample. To give you an example: my daughter and her friends love to be told stories, but they are not getting these stories from books anymore, they are getting them from the Internet and from TV shows…

New Europe: So Marshall McLuhan was right.

Jonathan Coe: Yeah, maybe. I mean, the great selling point of the book, as a technological object, used to be its portability. You wanted to be told a story on a plane, or on a train, then this is how you do it: you have this object that you can put in your case and carry around. Now, when you take the TGV, the high speed train to Paris, or the plane, you see that everybody is watching movies on their tablets. Everybody except me. I still like to read books.

New Europe: But what happened with the promised hyper literature? We have been told that we will have interactivity, that the reader will be able to click and choose an ending to his/her liking…

Jonathan Coe: Yeah, I am not sure that the reader wants that. In many ways, reading is a very passive act and being told stories on a screen is even more passive, the writing and the images just come to you, and this is the real beauty of reading, that you surrender to another person’s story telling. We don’t want the responsibility of choosing what direction the story goes next… When the internet started, I got excited by these things and I thought that story telling might take this interactive direction, but… now I think it was simply a misunderstanding about the nature of reading.

New Europe: In your writing it would even be an overkill, because you write in an exploded, scattered way, with many mingled voices in each chapter and a very complicated structure. For us, as readers, it seems you’ve caught the train already, whereas people such as Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie or Hanif Kureishi seem to struggle with the new techniques of narration. How did you adapt yourself to the new way of telling a story and using the word?

Jonathan Coe: Actually, I think of myself of quite a traditional writer. I grew up watching TV. It was a very good time for British TV, in terms of drama, there were Ken Loach and Stephen Frears, but also in comedy, such as Monty Python and other comedians that didn’t become so famous abroad. I don’t mean Benny Hill, he is a different kind of thing. Certainly through Monty Python I learned a sense of playing with the conventions of television and subverting the conventions of television. That was a very strong influence on me as a young viewer. I never saw a contradiction between doing that on television and doing it in a book. And another weird root: when I was a kid in the ‘70s, I was very much into progressive rock. I let myself influenced by rock bands such as Gentle Giant. They made two songs which were about Gargantua and Pantagruel. I read the sleeve notes to the album and it was mentioned that they were based on the book by Rabelais. At first I thought that must be some French version of the Lord of the Ring, a book with giants. So I went to find in my school’s library, in a very good translation from the XVIIth century… Well, I thought: This is the most subversive monk ever, this is incredible. So I discovered Rabelais, who was another big influence on my writing. When you are 15 and discover that… Plus the music of Gentle Giant.

New Europe: What is your opinion, as a writer, about the consequences of Brexit? You have also said that you consider yourself to be a European writer. What do you feel you are now? Will Brexit change your writing, or play a role in it?

Jonathan Coe: You know, I don’t read many American writers, I always thought of myself as a European writer, and European as a person. But these identities are ambiguous, they are just a thin layer. For me it is simple to say that one can be European and British at the same time. But finally, we were told that we have to make choice. A binary choice. Are you European, or are you English? Make up your mind and put a cross on the other box. For people who have a sophisticated, a complex identity, this is actually an assault on their identity. And young people resent this strongly. The generation of my daughter, much more than me, grew up feeling that they were part of the EU, but also part of Britain, and suddenly they are told: No! We had a vote and you are not allowed to feel that anymore. That is an assault on my identity.

New Europe: What are the social themes that you would like to tackle in your future books?

Jonathan Coe: National identity. Brexit shook us, we were taking Europe for granted. I, personally, hadn’t realised how many people, and how strongly, were feeling about their national identity, about their Englishness – against other countries. It turns out that this is something that people in my country, especially the older generation, feel very strongly about. That will be the theme of my next book. And, of course, the problem of multiculturalism and how younger people, for the most part, seem to feel more comfortable in Europe than the older generation. The great irony of Brexit, a dark irony, is that by the time we leave the EU, let’s say in 2020, or 2022, the majority for Brexit will not exist anymore. Very many people from the generation that voted for it will have died. British humour. We used to be making the joke, but now we have become the joke.

New Europe: You said that in the political spectrum the left glided to the right, and the right to the left. Do old divisions have any meaning anymore?

Jonathan Coe: Now, I think this is one of the reasons we are in such a mess, because the old labels have become so fluid. It has been a gradual process, but they lost their meaning and we haven’t redefined them. If you look at Brexit, it cannot be broken down to a division between left and right, but between older people and the young, the countryside versus towns, and, of course, London, which declared itself as being totally independent from the rest of Britain. Somebody said that the United Kingdom now consists of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, London, and England without London. And if you look at England without London, that’s where the Leave voters come from. It’s a kind of English nationalist revolt, but London is excluded from it.

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