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British author Jonathan Coe reflects on Brexit, Boris Johnson, and the Royal Family

British novelist and writer Jonathan Coe poses during a photo session in Paris, on July 13, 2021.
British novelist and writer Jonathan Coe poses during a photo session in Paris, on July 13, 2021. Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By Diego Giuliani
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Coe's latest novel, titled "Bournville", takes on a family saga, but with a unique focus on the emotional relationship between the British people and the royal family.

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The fetishization of the royal family, the cruelty of the lockdown, the lack of convictions of Boris Johnson, the shock of the “leave-vote” and the growing disillusion of the people towards the Brexit outcome, too. Jonathan Coe is dealing with a lot.

When I speak with him, I get the same feeling as reading his books: he always ends up sketching a portrait of British society.

I met the prize-winning author of “Middle England”, “What a Carve Up!” and “The House of sleep” in the French city of Lyon, on his tour to promote his latest novel “Bournville”. 

Understanding British society through Jonathan Coe's Books

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The royal family gather as they watch a flypast of Royal Air Force aircraft pass over Buckingham Palace on July 10, 2018.Matt Dunham/AP

Like most of his former books, it’s a family saga set after the Thatcher era and Brexit, but this time he shines a light on another very British peculiarity: the people’s emotional relationship with the royal family.

He calls it an “obsession”, “another strange quirk of the British people”, which he’s still trying to understand himself. “Even if you weren’t a real monarchist, it was impossible not to share the extraordinary public outpouring of emotion when the Queen died,” he says. 

“This woman had been on the throne for 70 years, she had conducted herself faultlessly and earned a lot of respect. Some of the people who were mourning her could still remember her coronation back in 1953, which seemed like the dawning of a new era in British life.”

Attempting to make sense of a divided nation

Alberto Pezzali/AP
Boris Johnson leaves his house in London, Wednesday, March 22, 2023.Alberto Pezzali/AP

All of his books, especially since Brexit, are “attempts to understand what is going on in Britain,” he says. 

“The referendum result came as such a shock to many of us. We woke up that morning, realizing that we lived in a country that we didn't understand. I'm delighted if people read and appreciate my books, especially in other countries, but I write them for the very selfish reason to try to explain things to myself.”

Part of the answer lies with Boris Johnson. “Whether he’s a fictional character or not remains hard to determine with any certainty,” Coe reflects drolly in his latest novel. 

“I don't regard him as a conviction politician at all. I don't see that he believes in anything but he was the right person to deliver Brexit,” he says. 

“People trusted him because he was prepared to laugh at himself and gave the impression, exactly as Trump did, of being outside of the political system. And this, at a moment when a lot of British people were tired of politics and politicians.”

A "necessary cruelty" with lingering consequences

Matt Dunham/AP
A man wearing a face mask to curb the spread of coronavirus walks past the House of Fraser department store which has closed down during the coronavirus outbreak in LondonMatt Dunham/AP

There’s one more thing, that as a writer Coe wanted “to put on record for that time not to be forgotten” and “maybe allow us to learn lessons from it” - Covid. 

Mary Lamb, the matriarch at the heart of the “Bournville” family saga, is inspired by his own mother, who died during the pandemic. “The lockdown has been extremely cruel for many people,” he says. “Its psychological and social after-effects are still being felt, and have yet to be understood, but it was a necessary cruelty. I don't see what else Europe could have done in the face of a virus, for which we had no vaccine.”

My time is up and Coe must now go on the stage of the beautiful Théâtre des Célestins, where he is awaited by the former French ambassador in the UK, Sylvie Bermann to address the Littérature Festival 2023. 

But before saying goodbye, I can’t resist from asking him one final question: “What will he be exploring in his next novels, now that Brexit is done and Boris is gone?” 

“British life and British politics will always be full of absurdity. Boris Johnson may have gone but there's no shortage of comic material in the current political scene,” he adds reassuringly. 

“The material is and will always be there."

Check out the video in the web player above to watch our interview with Jonathan Coe.

Video editor • Theo Farrant

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