Authors: Jonathan Coe
WHAT A CARVE UP!
‘One of the most ambitious novels I have read in years and one which has pulled off the seemingly impossible trick of managing to be both amiable and angry at the same time’
– Tom Shone in the
‘A grand blast of popular literary entertainment’ – Laurence O’Toole in the
New Statesman & Society
‘Something far more rich and strange than social satire … Michael, in the book, says the essential quality of good writing is “brio”. I would go along with that, and
What a Carve Up!
has brio to spare. I enjoyed it very much’ – John Mortimer in the
Mail on Sunday
‘Coe effortlessly spans fifty years of British political and social change in this hugely entertaining novel, packed full of period detail, from forties schoolboy slang to modern media wars’
– Lavinia Greenlaw in
‘A carve-up of contemporary Britain,
What a Carve Up!
is also a carve-up of a book, a vertiginous, exquisitely calculated collage of texts-within-texts … one of the few pieces of genuinely political post-modern fiction around’ – Terry Eagleton in the
London Review of Books
‘An unusually entertaining novel, as well as being politically ambitious … it manages to switch from one tone to another with extraordinary deftness. It reminded me of something like
which keeps you laughing and yet doesn’t shy away from the horrors that it’s writing about’ – Nicolette Jones on
BBC Radio Four
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jonathan Coe was born in Birmingham in 1961. His most recent novel is
The Rain Before It Falls.
He is also the author of
The Accidental Woman
A Touch of Love
The Dwarves of Death
What a Carve Up!
, which won the 1995 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize,
The House of Sleep,
which won the 1998 Prix Médicis Étranger,
The Rotters’ Club,
winner of the Everyman Wodehouse Prize, and
The Closed Circle.
His biography of the novelist B.S. Johnson,
Like a Fiery Elephant,
won the 2005 Samuel Johnson Prize for best non-fiction book of the year. He lives in London with his wife and two children.
WHAT A CARVE UP!
Published by the Penguin Group
Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published by Viking 1994
First published in Penguin Books in 1995
This edition published 2008
Copyright © Jonathan Coe, 1994
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
For 1994, Janine
‘An Organization of Deaths’
1 Where There’s a Will
2 Nearly a Nasty Accident
3 Don’t Panic, Chaps!
4 Carry On Screaming
5 A Lady Mislaid
6 The Crowning Touch
7 Five Golden Hours
8 Back Room Boy
9 With Gagarin to the Stars
Enfin, Madame … m’expliquerez-vous?
Rien. Si vous dormez, si vous rêvez, acceptez vos rêves. C’est le rôle du dormeur.
– Cocteau’s screenplay to
‘Meet me,’ he’d said and forgotten
‘Love me’: but of love we are frightened
We’d rather leave and fly for the moon
Than say the right words too soon
– Louis Philippe,
Tragedy had struck the Winshaws twice before, but never on such a terrible scale.
The first of these incidents takes us back to the night of November 30th 1942, when Godfrey Winshaw, then only in his thirty-third year, was shot down by German anti-aircraft fire as he flew a top-secret mission over Berlin. The news, which was relayed to Winshaw Towers in the early hours of the morning, was enough to drive his elder sister Tabitha clean out of her wits, where she remains to this day. Such was the violence of her distraction, in fact, that it was deemed impossible for her even to attend the memorial service which was held in her brother’s honour.
It is a curious irony that this same Tabitha Winshaw, today aged eighty-one and no more in possession of her thinking faculties than she has been for the last forty-five years, should be the patron and sponsor of the book which you, my friendly readers, now hold in your hands. The task of writing with any objectivity about her condition becomes somewhat problematic. Yet the facts must be stated, and the facts are these: that from the very moment she heard of Godfrey’s tragic demise, Tabitha has been in the grip of a grotesque delusion. In a word, it has been her belief (if such it can be called) that he was not brought down by German gunfire at all, but that the killing was the work of his own brother, Lawrence.
I have no wish to dwell unnecessarily on the pitiful infirmities which fate has chosen to visit upon a poor and weak-minded woman, but this matter must be explained insofar as it has a material bearing on the subsequent history of the Winshaw family, and it must, therefore, be put into some sort of context. I shall at least endeavour to be brief. The reader should know, then, that Tabitha was thirty-six years old when Godfrey died, and that she was still living the life of a spinster, never having shown the slightest inclination towards matrimony. In this regard it had already been noticed by several members of her family that her attitude towards the male sex was characterized at best by indifference and at worst by aversion: the lack of interest with which she received the approaches of her occasional suitors was matched only by her passionate attachment and devotion to Godfrey – who was, as the few reports and surviving photographs testify, by far the gayest, most handsome, most dynamic and generally prepossessing of the five brothers and sisters. Knowing the strength of Tabitha’s feelings, the family had fallen prey to a certain anxiety when Godfrey announced his engagement in the summer of 1940: but in place of the violent jealousy which some had feared, a warm and respectful friendship grew up between sister and prospective sister-in-law, and the marriage of Godfrey Winshaw to Mildred, née Ashby, passed off most successfully in December of that year.
Instead, Tabitha continued to reserve the sharpest edge of her animosity for her eldest brother Lawrence. The origins of the ill-feeling which subsisted between these unhappy siblings are not easy to trace. Most probably they had to do with temperamental differences. Like his father Matthew, Lawrence was a reserved and sometimes impatient man, who pursued his extensive national and international business interests with a single-minded determination which many construed as ruthlessness. That realm of feminine softness and delicate feeling in which Tabitha moved was thoroughly alien to him: he considered her flighty, over-sensitive, neurotic and – in a turn of phrase which can now be seen as sadly prophetic – ‘a bit soft in the head’. (Nor, it has to be admitted, was he entirely alone in this view.) In short, they did their best to keep out of each other’s way; and the wisdom of this policy can be judged from the appalling events which followed upon Godfrey’s death.
Immediately before setting off on his fatal mission, Godfrey had been enjoying a few days’ rest in the tranquil atmosphere of Winshaw Towers. Mildred, of course, was with him: she was at this stage several months pregnant with their first and only child (a son, as it was to turn out), and it was presumably the prospect of seeing these, her favourite members of the family, which induced Tabitha to forsake the comfort of her own substantial residence and cross the threshold of her hated brother’s home. Although Matthew Winshaw and his wife were still alive and in good health, they were by now effectively consigned to a set of chambers in a self-contained wing, and Lawrence had established himself as master of the house. It would be stretching a point, all the same, to say that he and his wife Beatrice made good hosts. Lawrence, as usual, was preoccupied with his business activities, which required him to spend long hours on the telephone in the privacy of his office, and even, on one occasion, to make an overnight trip to London (for which he departed without making any kind of apology or explanation to his guests). Meanwhile Beatrice made no pretence of welcoming her husband’s relatives, and would leave them unattended for the better part of each day while she retired to her bedroom on the pretext of a recurrent migraine. Thus Godfrey, Mildred and Tabitha, perhaps as they themselves would have wished, were thrown back on their own devices, and passed several pleasant days in each other’s company, wandering through the gardens and amusing themselves in the vast drawing, sitting, dining and reception rooms of Winshaw Towers.
In the afternoon on which Godfrey was to leave for the airfield at Hucknall on the first leg of his mission – something of which his wife and sister had only an inkling – he had a long and private interview with Lawrence in the brown study. No details of their discussion will ever be known. Following his departure, both women became uneasy: Mildred with the natural anxiety of a wife and mother-to-be whose husband has set out upon an errand of some importance and uncertain outcome, Tabitha with a more violent and uncontrolled agitation which manifested itself in a worsening of her hostility towards Lawrence.
Her irrationality in this respect was already evident from a foolish misunderstanding which had arisen only a few days earlier. Bursting into her brother’s office late in the evening, she had surprised him during one of his business conversations and snatched away the scrap of paper upon which – in her version of events – he had been transcribing secret instructions over the telephone. She even went so far as to claim that Lawrence had been ‘looking guilty’ when she interrupted him, and that he had attempted to seize the piece of paper back from her by force. With pathetic obstinacy, however, she clung on to it and subsequently stored it away among her personal documents. Later, when she made her fantastic accusation against Lawrence, she threatened to bring it forward as ‘evidence’. Fortunately the excellent Dr Quince, trusted physician to the Winshaws for several decades, had by that stage made his diagnosis – the effect of which was to determine that no statements made by Tabitha thereafter would be received with anything other than the deepest scepticism. History, incidentally, seems to have vindicated the good doctor’s judgment, because when certain of Tabitha’s relics recently came into the hands of the present writer, the contended scrap of paper was found to be among them. Now yellowed with age, it turned out to contain nothing more remarkable than Lawrence’s scribbled note to the butler, asking for a light supper to be sent up to his room.
Tabitha’s condition deteriorated still further after Godfrey had left, and on the night that he flew his final mission a peculiar incident took place, both more serious and more ludicrous than any that had gone before. This grew out of another of Tabitha’s delusions, to the effect that her brother was holding secret meetings with Nazi spies in his bedroom. Time and again she claimed to have stood outside his locked bedroom door and caught the distant murmur of voices talking in clipped, authoritative German. Finally, when not even Mildred was able to take this allegation seriously, she attempted to make a desperate proof. Having pilfered the key (the only key) to Lawrence’s bedroom earlier that afternoon, she waited until such time as she was convinced that he was engaged in one of his sinister conferences, then locked the door from the outside and ran downstairs, shouting at the top of her voice that she had captured her brother in the very act of betraying his country. The butler, the maids, the kitchen staff, the chauffeur, the valet, the bootboy and all the domestics immediately came to her aid, followed closely by Mildred and Beatrice; and the entire company, now gathered in the Great Hall, was about to climb the staircase to investigate when Lawrence himself emerged, cue in hand, from the billiard room where he had been passing the hours after dinner in a few solitary frames. Needless to say, his bedroom was found empty; but this demonstration did not satisfy Tabitha, who continued to scream at her brother, accusing him of every manner of trickery and under-handedness, until finally she was restrained and carried to her room in the West Wing, where a sedative was administered by the ever-resourceful Nurse Gannet.
Such was the atmosphere at Winshaw Towers on that dreadful evening, as the deathly silence of nightfall spread itself over the venerable old seat; a silence which was to be broken at three o’clock in the morning by the ringing of the telephone, and with it the news of Godfrey’s terrible fate.
No bodies were ever recovered from that wreckage; neither Godfrey nor his co-pilot was ever to be accorded the honour of a Christian burial. Two weeks later, however, a small memorial service was held at the Winshaws’ private chapel. His parents sat stone-faced and ashen throughout the proceedings. His younger brother Mortimer, his sister Olivia and her husband Walter had all travelled to Yorkshire to pay their respects: only Tabitha was absent, for as soon as she heard the news, she had thrown herself into a frenzy. Among the instruments of violence with which she had attacked Lawrence were candlesticks, golf umbrellas, butter knives, razor blades, riding crops, a loofah, a mashie, a niblick, an Afghan battle horn of considerable archaeological interest, a chamber-pot and a bazooka. The very next day, Dr Quince signed the papers which authorized her immediate confinement in a nearby asylum.
She was not to step outside the walls of this establishment for another nineteen years. During that time she rarely attempted to communicate with other members of the family, or expressed any interest in receiving them as visitors. Her mind (or what few, pitiable shreds and tatters of it remained) continued to dwell inflexibly on the circumstances surrounding her brother’s death, and she became an obsessive reader of books, journals and periodicals concerned with the conduct of the war, the history of the Royal Air Force, and all matters even remotely connected with aviation. (During this period, for instance, her name appears on the regular subscribers’ lists of such magazines as
Professional Pilot, Flypast, Jane’s Military Review
.) And so there she remained, prudently left to the care of a trained and dedicated staff, until September 16th 1961, when she was granted a temporary release at the request of her brother Mortimer: a decision, however compassionately taken, which in itself would soon come to be regarded as unfortunate.
Death visited Winshaw Towers again that night.
Sitting at the bay window of their bedroom, looking out over the East Terrace and the bleak sprawl of the moors which rolled towards the horizon, Rebecca felt Mortimer’s hand rest gently against her shoulder.
‘It’ll be all right,’ he said.
He squeezed her and went over to the mirror, where he made small adjustments to his tie and cummerbund.
‘It’s really very nice of Lawrence. In fact they’re all being very nice. I’ve never known my family be so nice to each other.’
It was Mortimer’s fiftieth birthday and to honour the occasion Lawrence had organized a small but lavish dinner, to which the entire family – even the outcast Tabitha – was invited. It would be the first time that Rebecca, thirteen years her husband’s junior and still possessed of a childlike, rather vulnerable beauty, had met them all at one sitting.
‘They’re not monsters, you know. Not really.’ Mortimer rotated his left cuff-link through fifteen degrees, squinting at the angle critically. ‘I mean, you like Mildred, don’t you?’
‘But she’s not really family.’ Rebecca continued to stare out of the window. ‘Poor Milly. It’s such a shame she never remarried. I’m afraid Mark’s turned into an awful handful.’
‘He’s just got in with a boisterous set, that’s all. Happened to me when I was at school. Oxford’ll soon knock that out of him.’
Rebecca turned her head: an impatient gesture.
‘You’re always making excuses for them. I know they all hate me. They’ve never forgiven us for not inviting them to the wedding.’
‘Well that was my decision, not yours. I didn’t want them all there, gawping at you.’
‘Well there you are: it’s quite obvious that you don’t like them yourself, and there must be a rea–’
There was a discreet knock on the door, and the butler’s gaunt, solemn figure took a few deferential steps into the room.
‘Drinks are now being served, sir. In the ante-drawing room.’