Birmingham born author Jonathan Coe tells Shelley Carter how he maintains the work ethic of a student despite publishing 11 novels and how he dealt with the snobs at Cambridge
Jonathan Coe’s 2001 award-winning novel The Rotters’ Club is about to come to life at The Rep adapted by another award-winner, Richard Cameron. And it’s not the first time Coe’s witty tale of life growing up in Seventies’ Birmingham has been adapted – in 2003 for Radio 4 with fellow Brummie Frank Skinner involved and for TV in 2005 by the duo behind Porridge, Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais. Jonathan had some involvement in the TV version in that they asked his opinion and he rewrote a couple of lines, but this time he’s left Richard to it accepting he has no expertise in writing for the stage. In fact, he says the only adaptation of his work he has ever found disappointing was his own! He’s referring to his screenplay of The Dwarves of Death titled Five Seconds to Spare in 1999.
NO PLACE LIKE BRUM
Inspired by his upbringing in Birmingham, the writer is intimately linked to The Rotters’ Club. He says: “It will be an amazing experience to watch my stories and characters come to life on stage in the very city which inspired them.” Life growing up seemed to be fairly idyllic and Jonathan describes Birmingham as a ‘welcoming and happy’ place to call home. He lived in the same house in the Lickey Hills from birth through to university and felt ‘settled’. From the age of eight Jonathan was always writing. He explains: “The stories just got longer over the years and perhaps to those around me it was obvious that’s what I would do, but I never thought of it as a career.” One of an extraordinarily talented list of alumni of King Edward’s School in Edgbaston, many of whom we’ve featured in these pages, Jonathan explains why the place was so special: “I took it for granted aged 11. I just went to the school my parents sent me to. Looking back there was a rigorous academic teaching ethos with a fairly benign pastoral regime – none of the corporal punishment you might have expected from an English public school at that time.” He adds: “There’s a sense that we had the best of both worlds and we were made to feel special. I’m not sure Cambridge would have been possible without King Edward’s actually.” Speaking of Cambridge, it turned out to be an almighty shock initially and a place in which Jonathan certainly didn’t feel special. He recalls: “The Old Etonians and Harrovians who’d never heard of King Edward’s looked down their noses. I largely overcame it by writing in my room.”
Coe’s latest novel Number 11 is set on Birmingham’s number 11 bus that runs between Harborne and Yardley and was written in just six months. It’s not that his publisher rushed him. Just that like many people Jonathan needs a deadline looming to get things done. “I’m 54 and still have a student mentality. I get a contract for a book and within that contract there’ll be a deadline, but I’ll leave it until the very last minute every time.” Despite his success Jonathan has one regret. He says: “I’ve lost the first work I had published. I was 10 and one of my stories were published in the Cofton Hackett library magazine.” Jonathan describes himself as nostalgic by temperament, so I wonder how he feels about Birmingham’s overhaul in recent years. He comments: “I visited Longbridge recently and where the car factory once stood is Europe’s largest M&S. That says a lot.” He adds: “In the Seventies there wasn’t so much on offer in terms of consumerist coffee shops and supermarkets, but Birmingham was a happy place to grow up in.” Of New Street station he says: “My temperament means I like things to stay the same. Having said that the new version of New Street is clearly better. I was pretty impressed. I do feel nostalgic about the central library though.”