Twenty years of What A Carve Up!

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April 1994 saw the publication of perhaps the most fiercely anti-Thatcherite novel ever written: What A Carve Up! by Jonathan Coe.

It is a furiously angry as well as a funny book, but do not assume it is exclusively political. The novel’s action darts back to far beyond the Thatcherite Eighties veering between the decades from the Second World War to shortly after the Lady’s fall from power in late 1990. In fact, only one major character, the turncoat Henry Winshaw, is a politician. Throw in a recurring fixation with the fairly obscure Carry On style film starring Sid James and Kenneth Connor, a ninety-year old gay private detective, a bitter attack on the post-Thatcherite public transport system and that’s still only scratching the surface of this marvellously incisive novel.

The story is the primarily the tale of the Winshaws, the horrendous family who the book’s narrator is charged with writing the biography of. Echoing the mock gothic theme of the film the book is linked to (although not based on), the Winshaws’ lives in a blustery isolated manor house in northern England. In the film, Kenneth Connor’s character is brought to the house by the prospect of an inheritance. Instead, he encounters murder and romance in the form of an infatuation with a beautiful girl played by Shirley Eaton, later better known for her role in the classic James Bond film, ‘Goldfinger’.

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The link between the film and the book is an odd one. For example, one scene in the novel sees a character eavesdropping on the filming of the production in 1961 before being shooed off by the actor Sid James. Meanwhile, another character Tabitha Winshaw has been driven mad by the suspicion that her family had a role in the death of her brother in the Second World War. This echoes the fate of a character in the film (played by another ‘Carry On’ regular, Esma Cannon) who thinks she is still a suffragette and living fifty years in the past. But Tabitha’s fears do seem to have some foundation. At any rate, knowledge of the film is not essential to enjoying the book (I myself, have enjoyed the book for years, but only saw the film properly a couple of years ago).

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There is much to enjoy. My personal favourite sequences are the extracts from the diaries of Henry Winshaw, an unscrupulous man who travels from being a selfish Labour MP during the Wilson era to an unprincipled right-wing media whore in old age. The few brief diary entries perfectly reflect his self-importance (he is convinced Harold Wilson “hates and despises” him but the book’s footnote reveals Wilson never even knew who he was) and his betrayal as he suddenly urges his supporters to vote Tory on the eve of the February 1974 General Election (a bit like Enoch Powell, in reverse).

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There is more. Much more. Happily, the book has not overshadowed Coe’s subsequent career. He is as known for the excellent ‘Rotter’s Club’ (which has been televised) as for this and his superb ‘The Rain Before It Falls’ marked a total departure.

Every one of Coe’s nine novels to date is worth reading. But twenty years on, ‘What A Carve Up!’ remains his masterpiece.

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Book review: Seasons In The Sun – The Battle for Britain 1974-1979

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Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain, 1974-1979.

Dominic Sandbrook.

Penguin, 2011.

£10.99.

There is probably a great play to be written about the filming of the first Star Wars film.

Admittedly, there would probably be legal issues, perhaps insurmountable ones. But imagine! The tensions between the rising young American stars: ex-carpenter Harrison Ford and the highly intelligent but vulnerable Carrie Fisher. And the older, distinguished English co-star Sir Alec Guinness, a man with an Oscar and years of experience but little understanding of the script.

This might sound like an odd place to begin a review of a book about Britain in the late Seventies. But this is exactly where the book itself begins. The film was after all, mostly filmed in Britain with much of the cast drawn from the likes of those previously best known for appearances on Poldark or later to appear in Brookside. A key point is that Guinness had managed to secure a generous two percent of the entire profits for a film that was to become one of the most commercially successful of all time. Another is that under the tax regime of the time, Inland Revenue trucks were soon pulling up to claim 83 pence out of every pound Guinness had made.

This was, of course, not a happy spell in British modern history. Sandbrook suggests the 1974-76 Wilson Government was the worst in British history. “Wilson was one of the cleverest and kindest men ever to occupy Number 10 but also one of the weakest,” he writes. In fairness, he inherited a mess (the Three-Day-Week and an economic crisis from Heath) and left the situation little better. This is odd because the government which included Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Anthony Crosland amongst its members was far from extreme (for the most part) and certainly not lacking in talent. Probably the main problem was Wilson himself, who had not expected to return to power in 1974 and thanks to alcoholism and probable early Alzheimer’s, was a shadow of his sharp-witted, wily mid-1960s self. Jim Callaghan, at any rate, though close to being a watered down Thatcherite himself, did better. At least until the Winter of Discontent.

It was a strange time in many ways. There was intense paranoia on all sides as if the neuroses of Wilson and US President Richard Nixon had infected the general population. The right-wing host of TV’s Opportunity Knocks, Hughie Green appealed live on air: “For God’s sake Britain, wake up!” in 1975. Many worried about a coup from the Left  perhaps led by Tony Benn while others began preparing for a coup from the Right, perhaps led by Lord Mountbatten. Right-wing journalist Peregrine Worsthorne hoped the United States would come to the aid of a socialist Britain just as they had “helped” Allende’s Chile by replacing him with the murderous General Pinochet in 1973. This scenario later inspired Chris Mullin’s 1982 thriller A Very British Coup in which a democratically elected Labour Prime Minister is overthrown by a combination of the CIA, British security services and the Establishment.

This is the fourth of Dominic Sandbrook’s superb series of four books which thus far have chronicled Britain’s progress (or decline) from the era of Suez to the coming of Thatcher (the others are Never Had It So Good, White Heat and State of Emergency). As before, Sandbrook does a superb job of describing not just the political and economic scene but the minutiae of seemingly almost every aspect of British life, for example, the details of the Sex Pistols’ notorious TV appearance with Bill Grundy. “Who knows what Grundy thought he was s doing?” Sandbrook rightly asks after Grundy goaded his guests into swearing on live TV and thus ensuring his own downfall.

Mike Yarwood. Malcolm Bradbury. Butterflies. The Good Life. Quadrophenia. John Stonehouse. Lord Lucan. The Bee Gees. All are here. It is a fascinating read. Along with Alwyn W. Turner and David Kynaston, Dominic Sandbrook remains at the forefront among chroniclers of our nation’s recent history.

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