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Jonathan Coe - The Rotters’ Club (Book)

Jonathan Coe - The Rotters’ Club (Book)Cast your mind back to the 70’s.  Were you still at school?  Were you into prog at that time?  If so, The Rotters’ Club is definitely for you, especially if you are male, attended a grant-maintained grammar school in the UK and know Birmingham and surrounding area.

The book, which gets its title from the Hatfield and the North album The Rotters’ Club, is basically a ‘coming of age’ story that concentrates on the period from 1973 to 1979.  The tale revolves around four school chums, the central character being one Benjamin Trotter and it is through Benjamin’s eyes we learn of the shenanigans of pupils, parents and teachers as they progress in life in the 70’s.  Music, particularly progressive rock, features strongly in Benjamin’s world and many bands we know and love are mentioned.  Benjamin and his friend Philip even go as far as attempting to perform an epic 30+ minute piece along the lines of Supper’s Ready!

Various political aspects are covered including the Birmingham pub bombings, the Longbridge dispute (British Leyland, now Rover), racism, the labour government and the rise of Margaret Thatcher making the book something of a record of 70’s UK history.

The book ‘bounces’ about a little which can be disconcerting (the reader tends to feel they’ve missed something) but when the story tails off without explanation, it picks up again later on, so there’s no need to despair.

It is fairly likely that the book is at least partially autobiographical.  Jonathan Coe, I believe, attended King Edward VI school in Birmingham (in the book the school is called King William’s) of which there are a number dotted around the UK, many dating back to the 16th century and before.  In those types of school one generally has to pass an entrance exam (I should know – I went to King Edward VI in Stratford Upon Avon, just down the road), everyone is referred to by their surname, and uniform was either a grey suit or blazer.  Naturally with all this regimentation, the non-swots tended to get up to the odd wheeze or three at other pupils or teachers expense, which all makes amusing reading and brings back more than a few memories.

As you might expect from a prog fan, the book has its emotional moments, not least Benjamin’s quest for the girl of his dreams.  Doug’s quest for fame manifests itself in having a few articles published in NME.  The weekly school rag and the occasional politically incorrect bogus letters to the editor published within it are a hoot.  Class differences become apparent outside the supposed equality within the school walls in terms of family background, jobs and place of residence.  All in all, a real life story which I, personally, can easily relate to.

I haven’t given too much away as to do so may spoil the enjoyment of those who buy the book.  Needless to say I can highly recommend it.  It is intelligently written and an accurate and amusing perspective of teenage years in a UK grammar school in the 1970’s.  Critics in the US have not taken to the book quite as well, but perhaps you had to have been here (in the UK) to appreciate it.  A sequel is planned (due September 2004) entitled The Closed Circle which resumes the story from the late 1990’s.

The Rotters’ Club was first published late in 2001 and is now available in paperback published by Penguin.

Jem Jedrzejewski


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