Trotter: what a rotter

 

One's immediate instinct, on learning that Jonathan Coe has turned his considerable satiric talents to 1970s Britain, is to cry, "Why couldn't he have picked a decade when something happened?" But this is a book about how the world moved from 1969 to 1980, and anyone who thinks the transition was merely a question of killing time had better invest in The Rotters' Club.

This was the decade of the IRA pub bombings; of daily strikes; the Southall riots and police violence; the decline of old (or should it be "real"?) Labour; glam-rock, prog-rock and punk rock; and the shoot-tokill policy. Uneventful? Hardly.

The Rotters' Club charts the passage of a group of school-friends and their families through these barely navigable and frequently inimical waters. External events are chronicled faithfully, often as the casual backdrop to the desperate love-lives and school-rivalries that are the actual drama of teenagers' lives. But on occasion, the outside world intrudes with devastating impact, and Coe's skill is such that his ambushes never fail.

There is warmth too, particularly in the gentleness of Ben Trotter (Bent Rotter to his classmates), through whose loving and uncomprehending eyes the lives of the other characters are filtered, and many lighter touches, such as when Mrs Chase's secret love-letter becomes a kind of contrapuntal glossary to her husband's procrustean struggle to make a crossword fit his vocabulary. But, as always, in Coe's work there is a subtext even to the crossword - a subtext clarified in Sam Chase's later exchange with Bill Anderton, the socialist shop steward, about ownership of language: Bill's point being that the bosses own it, and Sam's that his anagrams and self-improvement books are his way of repossessing it.

Satire, in Ronald Knox's 1928 definition, is a small boy running about squirting people with a water pistol charged with vitriol. Jonathan Coe has a deadly aim, and his pistol is fully charged. A malignant fate is at work in the lives of the Trotter family and friends, but especially in those of Ben and his sister Lois who are, in fact, The Rotter's Club, and whose younger brother Paul is the incarnation of what England was to become during the ascendancy of The Iron Lady. The book ends on the morning of that fateful Tory victory: what happens to Benjamin under an election poster of Mrs Thatcher urging him to "Vote Conservative" is the ultimate pleasure of this hugely enjoyable book.

William Wall's novel, Minding Children, has just been published by Sceptre