“You see the title of this record? It’s called The Rotter’s Club. The Rotter’s Club: that’s us Lois, isn’t it? Do you see? That’s what they used to call us, at school. Bent Rotter, and Lowest Rotter. We’re The Rotter’s Club. You and me, Not Paul. Just you and me.”
Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club takes us back to 1970s Birmingham. Beginning in 1973 it takes in the Heath, Wilson and Callaghan governments before ending with the day of Thatcher’s election and the start of the long 80s. Being from the West Midlands reading this novel felt familiar and important as it catalogued the industrial power hub in its final days. From my father’s generation nearly every man you meet from the West Midlands will have worked at some point in one of the many car factories and at secondary school our tutor groups were named after car manufacturers that used to use Coventry as their base: Alvis, Humber, Triumph … It is difficult to exaggerate how important this industry was and how the impact of its demise is still being felt. This coming of age story is deeply funny and irreverent throughout. The lives of the adults in particular are convoluted at best but their effect is perhaps best felt through their children who take us with them on their riotous journey to the end of adolescence.
Benjamin Trotter is essentially the novels main character however his group of friends take up the backbone of The Rotter’s Club as they navigate their school days at a direct grant all boys academy. Alongside Doug, Philip and Claire Benjamin passes through adolescence trying to discover himself through music, writing and an unrequited love affair with Cicely Boyd. Benjamin is one of the least interesting characters and yet because of that he is interesting. Coming from a relatively stable middle class family his life and future seem mapped out. It is the way those around him move and change that is so vibrant. Benjamin is a great entry point for the reader as we often share his view on the evolving world around him. As each of his family members seek out the stability, love or intellectual entertainment they find themselves moving further and further away from each other. As the decade closes will they still exist as a cohesive family unit or will life have exploded their domestic comfort?
The resurrection of the school paper brings together an eclectic mix of people and the desire to shock, to create copy that will be read and not necessarily inform is particularly pertinent to today. Rivalries and love affairs are bought out into the open as the power struggles of the outside world also take place within the supposed safety of the school walls. From the prefects, to the highly select Closed Circle debating society and most dominantly between the school’s two leading athletic and intellectual stars: Richards and Culpepper. Richard’s as the only black pupil faces racism and then false acceptance as he works to be the first member of his family to make it to University. Culpepper, an unpopular contemporary has it in for Richard’s from the start. This rivalry escalates throughout with very real effects. At the same time unionists, management, racists and progressives are all fighting to have their voice heard at the still booming British Leyland plant. Coe incorporates many real life events and people into the novel with excellent effect, drawing the reader in to the hub of the action.
Class and class divides are expertly scrutinised throughout the novel. The nature of fee paying private schools, and the hierarchy that comes with it parallels that of the Leyland employees and highlights how each person is affected by their class. Will Richards, from a working class background, be able to use education as a stepping stone to something more? For people like Benjamin is an easy life guaranteed? When writing for the school paper he is confused and disappointed that he is the only writer who seems unable to stir any controversy. Significantly the novel ends on a positive note however with Thatcher’s electoral victory in the background the reader is aware that what comes may have significant or even devastating impact on our much loved characters.
The title comes from Benjamin’s relationship with his older sister Lois. It is here that moments of pathos and the disappointment of life are best shown. At 16 Lois meets Malcolm, aka the hairy man. Soon they become a couple but the end of their affair is devastating. Coe is careful not to overdo this. After coming to the end of their chapter it is difficult not to be moved by what has happened. It is a reminder that the violence of the world, the politics and power plays, involve real ordinary people.
The only slight query would be as to the last chapter. Short and told from Benjamin’s perspective it is written as one sentence. Perhaps to show the joy and freedom the character is feeling at this point? Does the stream of consciousness show how he has now been freed from the constraints of school? According to the BBC the final chapter is made up of a 13,955 word sentence, making it the longest single sentence in the English language at the time of publication. This rather unique accolade however seems to do little for the actual telling of the story. A BBC TV series of The Rotter’s Club made more of the adult story lines that are only peeked at in the novel. In case of the affair between Barbara and Mr Plum this worked excellently and proved to be one of the funniest points of the series.
Excitingly the Author’s Note at the end of the book says that there is a sequel. Called The Closed Circle it meets up with the characters in the late 1990s. I am very keen to read this. The Rotter’s Club was my first introduction to Jonathan Coe’s writing but I hope to read and review the follow up for you all in the near future.
My daughter passed this book onto me thinking I might enjoy it and I would happily recommend it to others. The Rotter’s Club is such as good story with plenty of twists and turns. Coe must have lived through that time in history. The way he evoked the history of the unions and civil strife in late 70’s Birmingham was similar to how I remember it being. Red Robbo is mentioned in the book. This took me back to the day that as an apprentice I saw shop stewards from the Transport and General Workers speak to a field of union members before they declared strike action on his behalf (that if memory serves only around one third of people actually voted for!). The relationship between the car industry and the local community defined our lives but now that time has passed. I liked the way the character Stephen was used to show up the inherent racism in the system. The way that life will always be easier for some than others. The writing was witty and wry and made me laugh out loud. There was one particular scene, between Lois and the Hairy Man, that made my heart twist. It started as a sweet lovely evening out but turned into something that nearly made me cry. It was not overdone but told simply and delicately. This scene has stayed with me.
Jonathan Coe, The Rotter’s Club, (Viking, London, 2001) ISBN 0375413830. 414pp., Hardback