Monday, 29 December 2014

What A Carve Up!

What A Carve Up! - Jonathan Coe
(US Title The Wimshaw Legacy)
(The US title of the film What a Carve Up! was No Place Like Homicide)

"Mum, I want to stay and see the end."

In this earlier post I explained how I and some others decided to read this together. Hopefully all have progressed and there will be  a bundle of posts over the next few days. I will link as I discover them.

Here's Jacqui at JacquiWine's Journal
Here's Guy at His Futile Preoccupations or The Years of Reading Aimlessly…..

How do you package anger and disgust, at yourself and the world you live in? Here is one answer, with a mixture of bile and belly laughs. Coe's book goes straight to the top table of comic novels that I have read, and is also one of the best political novels I have read. That's the gush done with, for now at least.

Coe parodies many styles, but it is mostly a cod gothic novel which reminded me of Cold Comfort Farm and Gormenghast. There are multiple narratives at play, all of which are pulled together by fantastical coincidences. Michael Owen, author of two moderately well received novels, is offered very attractive deal (any deal that involves money is attractive to a novelist!) to pen the history of the Wimshaw family for the vanity publishing firm Peacock Press. The rich, greedy Wimshaw's are almost all an odious crew, solely motivated by money. Their home, Wimshaw Towers, is a grim, gothic pile overseen by a 'gaunt, solemn' butler called Pyles. "As for the mad conglomeration of gothic, neo-gothic, sub-gothic and pseudo gothic towers which gave the house its name, they resembled nothing so much as a giant black hand, gnarled and deformed: its fingers clawed at the heavens, as if to snatch down the setting sun which shone like a burnished penny and would soon, it seemed, have descended inexorably into its grasp."

The only ones of the Wimshaw brood who do not seem to be  solely motivated by money and a barely controlled derision for the proles are Godfrey, Mortimer and Tabitha.  Godfrey is long dead at the novel's opening, killed on a mission during WW2, and Tabitha has been in an asylum since then, mostly for her unshakeable belief that her brother Lawrence was behind Godfrey's death. The opening section is an extract from Michael Owen's history of which Tabitha is "the patron and sponsor." It includes two occasions on which death visited Wimshaw Towers; the night when news of Godfrey's death was received and the night of Mortimer's fiftieth birthday, when Tabitha was invited and the whole family was gathered together. During the night a 'burglar' breaks in and attempts to attack Lawrence but Lawrence defends himself and kills the intruder. There is more than a faint suspicion that Tabitha was somewhat involved in this attempt on Lawrence's life and she is packed back off to the asylum.

The Wimshaw Family Tree
We then shift from the history of the Wimshaws to the history of the writer, who's ninth birthday takes place the day after Mortimer's fiftieth. The highlight of an outing to Weston-super-Mare is going to be a swim in the outdoor pool. "My father and I emerged from the changing cubicles together: I thought he looked easily the most handsome man at the poolside that afternoon, but to my memory's eye our thin white bodies now seem equally childlike and vulnerable. I ran ahead of him and stood at the water's edge, relishing a tiny but priceless moment of expectancy. After that I jumped; and after that, screamed." The pool, unexpectedly, is unheated and all are outraged. To try and save the day the young Michael is taken to the cinema, where the most suitable film seems to be What A Carve Up!, starring Kenneth Connor, Sid James and Shirley Eaton, itself a loose remake of "an old Boris Karloff feature, The Ghoul.". It's suitability is cemented when it is noticed that the supporting short is about his hero, Yuri Gagarin. However Michael will not get to see the feature film all the way through as his mother decides that it is unsuitable and he is dragged from the cinema. Michael becomes obsessed with the film and when his story fast forwards to the late eighties we find him viewing and reviewing the film with his finger on the pause button and his fly unbuttoned. The key scene for Michael involves Kenneth Connors coming by accident into the room of Ms Eaton, on a night when all around them in Blackshaw Towers are being killed by a psychopathic murderer. Despite being invited to stay ("it was no longer Kenneth she spoke to but me, my own nine year old self") and seeing glimpses of Ms Eaton in a state of undress in a mirror, and clearly finding her attractive, Kenneth Connor's character seems more frightened of a beautiful woman than a murderer and flees. ("it was me that I saw on the screen, sharing a room with the most beautiful woman in the world, trapped in that old dark house in that terrible storm in that shabby little cinema in my bedroom that night and in my dreams forever afterwards. It was me.")
Kenneth Connors, the mirror and Shirley Eaton
The plot of the film What a Carve Up! and the Wimshaw's family history will become increasingly parallel as the book continues. As will the "author"'s story. Indeed it is possible to read the book as being mainly about the attempt to write a book that expresses outrage at the shape of society rather than an expression of outrage. Everything that happens seems to be inspired by the author's own experiences and obsessions. His early obsession with Yuri Gagarin, who died in an airplane accident that may not have been an accident is a clear inspiration for the earlier death of Godfrey. The scene where Kenneth Connor flees Shirley Eaton's room reflects Michael Owen's own fear of women. Indeed his agent suggests that the absence of sex in his life is having a bad effect on his work.

It is somewhat ironic
that I now have "the necessary biro"
There is much on the stuff of writing, the creative and the financial. In one episode Michael writes a review of a fellow writer who "sometimes played elementary tricks with narrative, in feeble imitation of Sterne and Diderot" and "was hailed as an experimental pioneer." The review ends by saying that the writer lacks "the necessary brio" but this gets misprinted as "biro" and leads to much laughter at Michael's expense. This quote from the review might be seen as a blueprint for Coe's novel: "We stand badly in need of novels, after all, which show an understanding of the ideological hijack which has taken place so recently in this country, which can see its consequences in human terms and show that the appropriate response lies not merely in sorrow and anger but in mad incredulous anger."

And although most of the influences harnessed in this book come from so called low culture - What A Carve Up!, the Carry-On films, Cluedo, spy-movies.. there are also hints of Coe's ambition, not least in the piece above but in the references to high culture precedents for what he is doing such as Ovid's Metamorphoses or Cocteau's Orphée. It is as if the Wimshaws and the others are in many ways two sides of the same coin. In entering the world of the Wimshaw's Michael is really discovering his own story.

The use of existing plot and character, indeed the humour and tenor of the whole book, reminded me of Flann O'Brien's brilliant debut novel At Swim-Two-Birds. This quote sums up something of the way Coe uses the material he appropriates for the structure of WACU! “Characters should be interchangeable as between one book and another. The entire corpus of existing literature should be regarded as a limbo from which discerning authors could draw their characters as required, creating only when they failed to find a suitable existing puppet. The modern novel should be largely a work of reference. Most authors spend their time saying what has been said before – usually said much better. A wealth of references to existing works would acquaint the reader instantaneously with the nature of each character, would obviate tiresome explanations and would effectively preclude mountebanks, upstarts, thimble-riggers and persons of inferior education from an understanding of contemporary literature.

I feel that Coe has, while excoriating the powerful Wimshaws, directed a mirror at himself and his readers asking how we may have a major role in the creation of these Frankensteins, even if it is just in the absence of a proper sense of outrage. We buy their goods, and their bullshit, elect their ilk and refuse to consummate our righteous anger. Is it that we want the drama, the brio that they can provide and that we find righteousness just a bit boring?

Meet the Wimshaws:
Generation One
At the novel's beginning Matthew and Frances have been relegated by Lawrence to the lesser wing of Wimshaw Towers and play little part in the novel.

Generation Two
Lawrence - The head of the family at the novel's beginning. Suspected of having his own brother killed by the Nazis while he is on a secret mission.

Olivia - When giving advice (ignored and unwanted) to her son Thomas she shows herself to be happy with greed but attached to propriety. She loved the Wimshaw name so much she married a cousin who carried it.

Esma Cannon, star of What a Carve Up! and some
"Carry On" films, and who reminds Thomas
"irresistibly of his mad Aunt Tabitha".
Tabitha - Tabitha spends most of her life in an asylum which is only matched for grimness by Wimshaw Towers itself. She is obsessed with the idea that Lawrence engineered the death of her brother Godfrey and with airplanes. It is she who pays for the family history to be written by Michael Owen.

Godfrey - The dead hero. One month before he dies he is (in Henry's words) "waxing rather lyrical about something called the Beaveredge (?) Report, which apparently says that everyone is going to have a better standard of living from now on, even the working classes and people like that."

Mortimer - Little enamoured of his family, other than Godfrey and Tabitha, Mortimer is set to inherit the rotting pile when Lawrence dies.

Generation Three
This generation each gets a section of the novel dedicated to them.
Dorothy - Dorothy marries George Brunwin, "one of the county's most successful and well liked farmers." . This is clearly what Hilary wants and she proceeds to make it one of Britains 'most efficiently' run farms and builds an empire on producing food as cheaply as possible, with all the cruelty and corner cutting that involves. She is the target of some of Coe's most bilious writing. George is as close as the novel comes to a tragic figure. Hilary will not touch him or let him touch her and he tries to secretly alleviate the suffering of some of the animals worst affected by Dorothy's methods.

Thomas - A merchant banker and voyeur who may or may not be the source of the meaning of banker in cockney slang. Invests in films, including What A Carve Up! for the opportunity to get his hands on offcuts featuring actresses in states of deshabillé. Is caught peeping on the set of What a Carve Up! as they shoot the key scene by feminist hero Sid James who tells him to "Do us all a favour, laughing boy: piss off out of it and don't come back."

Henry - Henry's diaries are one of the elements of the book and they clearly demonstrate that a lack of understanding of the world is no barrier to a political career. A transcript of a radio interview is full of particularly broad humour where his answers are particularly idiotic. Starts out as a Labour M.P. but is somewhere to the right of Hitler and is driven by the desire to gets his hands on the NHS, who's potential value is highlighted even before its existence by his uncle Lawrence: "He said that if someone could get himself appointed manager of a privatised Health Service, he would soon be just about the richest and most powerful man in the country."
He falls in love in college: "I THINK I AM IN LOVE. Yes! For the very first time! The President of the Assosciation is a girl from Somerville called Margaret Roberts and I have to say she is an absolute pip!" He is to meet her again, when she makes her maiden speech as the new member for Finchley when Henry stares "at her open-mouthed across the benches like some sex-starved pubescent. That hair! Those eyes! That voice!" She is, of course, better known as Margaret Thatcher.
His real love, though, is the quest for power and money.
This is Henry on geopolitics: "First the wall goes up, and now the Russkies start letting off fireworks again. Looks like we're back in business."

Mark - Somewhat accidentally shares a name with Baroness Thatcher's son, with whom he also shares an interest in arms, and selling them to whoever will buy them. He has "learned a great deal from Thomas and Henry, about how to make money, and how the divisions and conflicts between lesser, weaker-minded men can be exploited for personal gain."

Roddy - Roddy is the owner of an exclusive and influential art gallery where we first meet Phoebe Barton, an artist and a nurse who looks just like Shirley Eaton!! Although professing a deep love of art Roddy uses the promise of an opening at his gallery to try and seduce Phoebe, and he brings her down to Wimshaw Towers to close the deal.

Hilary - Hilary spends a few weeks as a teenager as the house guest of her brother's college friend who's father is a BBC producer who believes that television is "one of the fibres that holds the country together. It collapses class distinctions and helps create a sense of national identity." Hilary, after getting the sack from an independent TV company for some shady deals that redounded to her advantage rather than the company's, then becomes an opinion columnist for one of the tabloids, her first column, under the banner PLAIN COMMON SENSE, excoriating the miners and Arthur Scargill for their greed. When it is pointed out to her that they are not striking for more money she turns out another column excoriating Mr Scargill for his lack of business sense. She manages many further contortions as the novel goes by, making money as she does so and pushing the agendas of her circle.

Other Characters
Michael Owen - Dried up novelist, recluse, Wimshaw family historian, habitué of the pause button, Shirley Eaton obsessive who spends two years without having a conversation, an extreme withdrawal which may have a lot to do with a row he had with his mother in a restaurant.

Fiona - Michael's neighbour who unwittingly draws him out from his shell. Lacking a second name, Fiona seems almost like a real character and her illness, during which time Michael is supportive, is one of the most emotionally affecting parts of the novel. Her treatment in hospital provides a damning indictment of the state of the NHS.

Joan - Michael's closest childhood friend. A visit to see her in the early eighties introduces two other characters, Graham and Phoebe, who share her house and will become involved with the Wimshaws.  An incident between her and Michael somewhat reflects the scene between Kenneth Connors and Shirley Eaton and a game of Cluedo is also a parody of the climax of What a Carve Up!, book and film.

Graham Packard – A film student who has a room in Joan's house, Graham makes a documentary about the Falklands called Mrs Thatcher's War which intercuts scenes of the war with the life of an old pensioner called Mrs Thatcher. He will later appear in connection with Mark Wimshaw, who almost has him killed.

Phoebe Barton – The Shirley Eaton stand in is an artist and a nurse. Will she be the one who can unstick Michaels arrested sexual life and take him away from dreams and videos?

Findlay Onyx - A wonderfully libidinous gay detective in his nineties who has spent many years behind bars as a result of his irresistible attraction to cottaging, and the laws that made it illegal. Provides Michael with much information about the Wimshaws and about himself...

There are many, many more scenes and asides in this novel, enough to fill many blog posts. I will turn to a couple of buried 'literary' references that I felt in the novel. One was to Muriel Spark, who's hand I could not help feeling behind the story of the Peacock Press, which comes close to some of her own creations like the Autobiographical Association in Loitering With Intent. There is also a scene, apparently inspired by a real story taken from Kenneth Timmerman's The Death Lobby, about the arms market, where Mark Wimshaw sets up a version of what William Burroughs called his William Tell routine. I couldn't help feeling, or should I say projecting onto this, a feeling that Coe has little time for the sort of satire that speaks only to the literati. Or maybe feels that there is little time for such work, as the outrage needs to be communicated widely, and quickly.

I feel that this post has been little more than a volley of quotes and references and loose threads which don't really add up to a convincing argument for, against or about Coe's book.  However, the book is exactly the opposite; every loose end is tied up and the whole book is like a perfectly wrapped present. It meets all the requirements of low entertainment and provides all the stimulus of high art. I may return to it in another post if time and energy allow. You should try it if you haven't already done so!

**Author's Imprimatur**


  1. I've been looking forward to reading your review, Seamus, so I'm sitting here with my cup of coffee before the day gets underway! Marvellous post. I love that quote on the Winshaw Towers - it's such an atmospheric description full of menace and greed, just like the Winshaws themselves. I like how you've highlighted the coincidence theme too. Chance seems to play a significant role in the novel's events, doesn't it?

    I'm interested in your theory that Coe might be inviting us to consider how we may have played a part in the creation/proliferation of these creatures. I think it's a valid point, especially if we fail to demonstrate our anger or avoid demonstrations when push comes to shove. It's sad to think how many of these political issues remain relevant today...

    1. I seem to have missed a complete section I planned where I was to discuss how the plot seems to be arising from Michael's dreams. It seems to suggest that to find inspiration we must look inside us, in Yeats' 'foul rag and bone shop of the heart". The writer can never fully shrug off his creations, but accept that they share much with him.
      I like the way that chance is highlighted but that some of the most coincidental seeming events are then shown to have been carefully planned.

    2. There's the idea for your next post! Thanks for suggesting the readalong - it's been fun.

  2. Is "Peacock Press" a reference to Thomas Love Peacock?

    That "giant black hand, gnarled and deformed: its fingers clawed at the heavens," looks like a direct allusion to the first page, not of Gormenghast, but of Titus Groan. "This tower [...] arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven."

    1. I should, more accurately have said Titus Groan as it is the only one of the trilogy I have read thus far.

      Peacock, as I took it, is just a sideswipe at the vanity in self-publishing.

    2. Oh I wasn't saying you were wrong about Gormenghast, only that that line seems so deliberately Groanian.

    3. Fantastic post Seamus. Achieved what all good reviews should do , it has made me want to drop what I am reading and reread this instead. I did really like the book , but I loved his next house of sleep and then the rotters club better. I think because they are more straight forward. With carve up I kept thinking I was missing various levels

    4. Hi David, Thanks! Great to hear that Coe's other books live up to and perhaps even exceed What a Carve Up! I have The Rotter's Club on my shelves so might try that fairly soon.

    5. House of sleep is amazing..a novel about sleep not an enticing prospect, but turns out to be compelling and very moving as is the Rotters club..great humanity in all 3 Books.... Brendan

    6. I will certainly have to keep my eyes open for House of Sleep which seems to be getting very strong recommendations both here and elsewhere. Thanks for adding your voice to their numbers Brendan.