What A Carve Up! review: ‘a point where greed and madness can no longer be told apart’

I don’t know which induces nausea in me the most: whether it’s Tony Blair’s Joker Jack grin as he trousers £20 million thus far for services rendered, or Stephen Byers’ ‘gorblimey, I’m only a cabbie, mate, at five grand a shot’ routine.

Who makes me reach fastest for the sick bag? Could it be Geoff Hoon, Iraq War dogsbody, who was prepared to do whatever it took to make his bones and get the Iraq war going and will do the same to join the ranks of the Croesus Class as revealed in the recent Channel 4 sting?

Or, on the other side: Eton posh boy David Cameron taking de-elocution lessons to mispronounce words like “probbly” instead of “probably”, who voted for the Iraq war, who flipped his house and who now distances himself from the expenses scandal like he and his party had nothing to do with it? Or the other posh boy, Nick Clegg, who is even wealthier than Cameron and, like him, descended from royalty but who constantly implies his roots are Sheffield salt-of-the-earth?

Welcome to the three wings of the one-party state: the Business Party.

As Fabrice Tourre, the accused Goldman Sachs trader, wrote before he unloaded worthless investments to ‘widows and orphans’: ‘ … the entire system is about to crumble at any moment.’

Fabrice was specifically referring to the banking system, but we can hear the creaks and the groans of the whole edifice before it goes down.

Career politicians are like the canaries down the mine. They know what’s coming, which is why they’ve ditched any pretence at social concern or ‘stakeholding’ and are leaping desperately like salmon in spawning season to join the super-rich as they shear off from the rest of us. For three deregulated decades, the powerful have been psychotically pillaging us and our poor little planet and now, ‘at the point where greed and madness can no longer be told apart’, it just can’t take it any more.

It’s this lunacy that drives the plot engine of Jonathan Coe’s What A Carve Up!, and about which he is so viscerally angry. In his 1994 novel, Coe compresses the criminal class running the country — and the world — into one sociopathic, homicidal, fratricidal family: the Winshaws.

They have already carved up the key industries between them. The family seat , Winshaw Towers in Yorkshire, has spawned Henry, a backstabbing Tory minister; Thomas, a voyeuristic banker who creates nothing tangible and yet, as one of Thatcher’s beloved ‘wealth creators’ pockets a fortune in ‘commissions, interest, fees, swaps, futures, options … no longer even paper money. It could be scarcely said to exist’; and Hilary, a media mogul who doesn’t believe a toxic word she writes in her populist columns. Dorothy, the battery farmer who wouldn’t touch the cruelly-reared unhealthy muck she feeds the masses, carries shades of Margaret Thatcher whose chief contribution to the world in her former career as a food scientist was to devise ever more effective methods of pumping air into ice-cream, so making even bigger profits from thin air. What a brilliantly untoppable metaphor that was. Roderick, the lascivious art dealer, creates the market of mediocre crap from which he profits. And Mark, the little shit who sells arms to Saddam even as the West is gearing up for the first Gulf War, is a portrait of homicidal malice, organising William Tell-style shooting competitions for his arms-dealing buddies aiming at apples balanced on the heads of hapless Filipino prostitutes.

Minor author Michael Owen is commissoned by mad Aunt Tabitha Winshaw to write a family history which she hopes will expose them in all their rottenness and maybe exact a revenge for the murderous betrayal of her beloved brother, Godfrey, the only good person in their grotesque number, by his own kith and kin. In delving into the family mystery, Michael comes to learn who he is and suffers at first hand from the predations of the dreadful clan.

Coe’s satire might have been overtaken by grim reality, but it still gives us a searing perspective from which to make sense of the current crop of horrors: of Blair; Iraq Mk II; of Tourre’s revelation of how bankers run the economy with mad pointlessness, their sole aim to move money into their own pockets: ‘What if we created a ‘thing’ which has no purpose, which is absolutely conceptual and highly theoretical and which nobody knows how to price?’

The banks took our money and, like all good monsters, bounced back more profitable than ever. And yet there is still practically no public control or accountability. Frigsample, they refuse to lend for mortgages although the Tories sold off the public stock and Labour refuses to build anywhere near realistic levels of new housing. How’s that for being caught between a rock and a hard place?

You’d think this was the time for the party we voted for to take charge and protect us from the predations of the corporations. New laws, perhaps. But, no. The governent bleats that its hands are tied. The blackmailing swine might take off to where regulations are even slacker, where taxes for those who can most afford it remain at rock bottom.

Yet miraculously, one holiday aboard music industrialist David Geffen’s yacht and Lord Mandelson criminalises British children who want to share the little pleasure left to them with anti-downloading laws. The government also rushed through legislation to bang up youth who imaginatively find new legal ways to get high while Ken Clarke who, as boss of British American Tobacco, brought the cancerous joys of smoking to a new generation of young Chinese, runs for political office. Again.

Talking left before an election as ever, promises are whispered by Labour of a Robin Hood tax of 0.0000000001 per cent on deals done throught the City, the same City that’s supposed to yield riches for ‘Britain’ which never trickles down to us. I think they mean ‘trickle down’ in the sense that we are the sparrows stitting by the horse’s arse to see if any nourishment gets pooed out. Will that legislation see the light of day? Will it, fuck!

Don’t wait for the politicians to protect you. I watched the videos of last year’s Orwell Prize debate. If you sit through Nick Cohen’s headline-grabbing indictment of the liberal press and giggle at Peter Hitchens’s retort that Nick was pissed (yeah, yeah), you get to the really telling stuff. Labour right-winger (at least he was pre-Bair when everything shifted tectonically to the right) Frank Field warns us ominously of something nasty coming down the pipeline. At first, I thought, yay! Someone’s warning us that the looting of society by Milton Freidman fans at the top has gone too far and unless we rein it back we are in for an Apocalypse. But, no. As we leave the Age Of so-called Enlightenment behind, what is Frank’s concern? Not that life for ‘Brits’ (meaning the middle and working classes) is turning into a living hell, but that the ‘mob’ is getting out of hand and has already, shock horror, targeted the home of a banker. When you deduce that the banker in question is the questionable Fred The Shred it makes you realise where these politicians’ misplaced priorities have been leading us.

Frank wouldn’t like What A Carve Up! one little bit, themed as it is around the 1964 movie of the same same starring Kenneth Connor, Sid James and Shirley Eaton in the low-brow comedy thriller about a revolting family who get bumped off one by one at the reading of a dead patriarch’s will. One man’s revenge fantasy is another man’s nightmare.

Now I understand why Frank’s lot have been building prisons and training up riot police to do their worst.

Coe not only made me laugh darkly in recognition of the state we’re in, but he also made me cry and rage at the same time. His unfolding of the personal tragedy of his protagonist through the grinding destruction of the NHS and how it affects real lives is one of the most moving things I’ve read. These are the people who’ll be in the ‘mob’ protesting when they realise that none of the political parties will defend them. These are the people for whom the issues are of life and death while the fiddlers burn down the town in their insatiable hunger for more, more, even more moolah.

And what happened to the far left forces who were supposed to have built a powerful alternative by now? An honest movement that would have trounced the Business Party at the polls and maybe led us into a world where we produce for need not greed? Well, during my sojourn in their ranks organising the press for the Socialist Alliance and Stop The War Coalition, I watched them creaming themselves at the first sight of fame in the public eye. As one prominent SWP member told me when I objected to the destructive swathe left by one crass opportunistic, nepotistic and exploitative leader, now trying to kick-start his media career via his breakaway RCP-style sect, ‘Self-interest and ego will always play a part. So what?’

Clegg, Cameron and Brown, differentiated only by the colour of their ties, declare in an anti-Spartacus trope, “I am Tony Blair!” “No, I am Tony Blair!” “No, I am Tony Blair… and so is my best friend!”

A carve up indeed. More gravy?

Madam Miaow says … visit Anna Chen’s website here:


Anna’s food blog here:

7 thoughts on “What A Carve Up! review: ‘a point where greed and madness can no longer be told apart’”

  1. Great article. And of course you're right about how the Left have cocked up a golden opportunity to build a real opposition. Nice quote from an unnamed SWP "star" at the end, btw!

  2. Brilliant article. Just the right balance of analysis and justifiable anger.

    Your spot on about Frank Field by the way. He was an arch witch hunter in the Labour Party back in the 80's. Looking back it's now clear that the witch hunt against the left in the Labour Party was explicitly aimed at locking out any non-business point of view from mainstream politics. That doesn't mean those view points have gone away of course but it does mean that people who don't think the free market is the best thing since sliced pan are disenfranchised. The frustration is still there but now it has no democratic out let what so ever, not even in the stunted form common to bourgeois democracy.

    I've been canvassing in a number of different working class areas around London for TUSC and the simmering frustration on the estates is palpable. Not all of it is directed against the bankers either. There is no doubt in my mind there will be an explosion in this country but unless we on the left build a positive alternative I very much fear the direction such an out burst could go in.

    As to that I think your being a bit unfair to the rest of us on the far Left who aren't in the SWP. We're not all like them and often we're the ones who get it in the neck from them the worst. For example in TUSC they are up to the same old tricks you would be familiar with in the Socialist Alliance. Good 'ol SWP, they learn nothing and forget nothing.

  3. Thanks, all.

    Neil and Auld Sod, I'm amazed at how Field has managed to rebrand himself as a credible elder statesman of the Labour party. Neil, that's interesting about his role in 80's Labour.

    I think we're all worried about where anger will be deflected. That's why Brown should have stood his ground with Bigotgate. After his grovelling he hasn't pleased anyone except for the right who are going to slaughter Labour.

    Neil, I'm afraid there were plenty of non-SWPers in the SA who knew what was happening and turned a blind eye at best, or who at their most repulsive shot the whistle-blower. But, granted, I do know some solid lefties with integrity. It's just that, from what I saw, they they are in a minority. All power to those of you sticking to your principles.

    Bristol Red, a wasted opportunity we're unlikely to get back.

  4. "I'm amazed at how Field has managed to rebrand himself as a credible elder statesman of the Labour party."

    The joke in Socialist Party is that Frank Field has managed to become a left winger in the Labour Party simply by standing still!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top