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Jonathan Coe on The Rotters’ Club: ‘My diary provided endless material, but I didn’t like the person I was’

·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images

From 1972-79, I was a pupil at King Edward’s school, Birmingham. It was at that time a direct grant school, which meant that although most of the places (including mine) were not fee-paying, it had all the trappings of a public school. It was single-sex, the teachers wore academic gowns, the assembly hall was called “Big School”, we played rugby rather than football, and there were two school songs, one of them in Latin. It was an elitist school, and many of my more clued-up, politically aware friends were aware of this.

I wasn’t. My head was in the clouds and all I was interested in was books, music, film and TV. At the age of 15 I started writing novels and the second one, called Half Asleep; Half Awake, was set in a thinly fictionalised version of the school.

I never got very far with that book, but when I began writing The Rotters’ Club in 1997 I suppose I was in some sense resuming the project I’d begun 20 years earlier. In the meantime, however, my outlook had become less obviously solipsistic.

My novel What a Carve Up! had been a stab at state-of-the-nation writing, and I now took the decision to make King Edward’s (renamed King William’s in a cunning ploy to disguise it) a microcosm of British society in the 70s.

Privileged ... King Edward&#x002019;s school in Birmingham.
Privileged ... King Edward’s school in Birmingham. Photograph: Nick Maslen/Alamy

A naive stratagem, it feels to me now, since the school was far too privileged and unrepresentative an institution to fulfil that function. But readers have been forgiving on that point, and the book still somehow seemed to strike a chord with people who didn’t enjoy my educational advantages.

I began ransacking my memory for incidents that had taken place during my schooldays. The most vivid was my terror at almost falling victim to the rule that on days when there was a swimming lesson, if you forgot to bring in your trunks, you had to swim without them. I built this episode into an elaborate comic set piece, and for years afterwards this would invariably be the passage that I read aloud at British literary festivals, where it got big laughs. Then I read it to an audience in Canada, who listened in horrified silence, and afterwards questioned me about the autobiographical dimension to the book, whether this had really happened to me, and if I had sought therapy as a result. An interesting lesson in cultural difference.

I didn’t much like the person I found in my diary: an intellectual snob, socially awkward, judgmental, narrow-minded

In the late 90s I was a very new user of the internet and don’t remember doing much research online. I used paper archives such as the British Library and the now-defunct newspaper library at Colindale in north London. Better still, I had kept a diary from 1977-79, which provided endless source material. I didn’t much like the person I found within its pages: an intellectual snob, socially awkward, judgmental, defensive, narrow-minded. That wouldn’t do for my main character. So in creating Benjamin Trotter, I tried to make him much more vulnerable and lovable. And, in the book’s most radical departure from autobiography, I gave him a sister, Lois, whose life is directly affected by the 1974 pub bombings, which I’d decided must be the cornerstone of any novel attempting to capture the texture of Birmingham life in the 70s.

Related: Jonathan Coe: 'It’s the point in your life at which you start asking yourself, what next?'

The Rotters’ Club was always intended to be the first in a six-volume sequence telling the story of Benjamin and his friends. In the end I decided it would be more interesting to skip volumes two to five and move straight on to No 6, The Closed Circle, which I wrote next. Unsurprisingly, this sour novel of middle-aged disillusionment didn’t have the same appeal, and lost me a number of readers who I didn’t manage to entice back for 10 years or more, when Middle England revisited the characters of Benjamin and Lois with, I hope, more generosity and humour.

• Mr Wilder & Me by Jonathan Coe is published by Penguin.

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