Thursday, 24 September 2009

'Heartland' by Anthony Cartwright

'Kill Matthew Barney', Jock McFadyen, oil on canvas, 120 x 182cms, 2007

I’ve really enjoyed reading ‘Heartland’, the new novel by Anthony Cartwright recently. Set in Dudley, it follows the story of Rob an increasingly failing footballer who drops a league each season from Aston Villa down to his local Cinderheath FC. Its set against the backdrop of the 2002 World Cup, with 9/11 still fresh in people’s minds, and Cinderheath opposing the local mosque team. The BNP on the sidelines, and the Tipton Taliban are in the news.

Cartwright seems to effortlessly weave and explore these themes and find the human heart behind these complex issues of identity, race, and class across different generations, and finds the unlikely similarities we all share.

I really identified with so many of the characters and Black Country settings, and am keen for other members of my family to read it, particularly my Dad, who still works in a factory in nearby Langley, just outside Dudley.

We sometimes discuss the politics of the young men who work there which are borne out of Thatcherism and her dismantling of so many of the communities in the Black Country as all the heavy industry he used to work in closed in the Eighties and Nineties. At this time places like Dudley and West Bromwich (where I grew up),and Tipton, where he was raised ‘turned to rust’, as it is put in the novel.

They are areas which have seen a rise in BNP activity, as ‘political’ groups (I describe these in the very loosest of terms) like these often like to move in and exploit the fears and insecurities of vulnerable communities. I think a lot of our discussions circle around our feeling of dislocation from the current working class generation and the Thatcherite values that seem pretty embedded, compared to the working class community we grew up in. I think this is partly an inevitable generational thing, but society has changed so much in the last twenty years with a focus on the material and the interest of the individual over that of the many.

Returning to the novel, I was really impressed by the skill and craft in Cartwright’s writing. There were many different strands and stories within the novel, and he never seemed to miss a beat, maintaining utter focus on the heart of the overall story. I was also fascinated by how all the dialogue was spoken in a thick Black Country accent, which can be totally impenetrable to those from outside the region. I’ve always admired writers like James Kelman and Irvine Welsh and how the voices in their novels are authentic to their region of Scotland, exploring language and dialect in all its complexities, and I suspect Cartwright is no stranger to their work, particularly the subtleties of Kelman. Cartwright’s debut novel ‘The Afterglow’, was also great and had many echoes of Kelman’s writing for me. They both deal with the quiet and banal spaces in between events, the places where things really happen, brilliantly.

At the top is a painting by Jock MacFadyen, the rather brilliantly titled 'Kill Matthew Barney', that I think depicts a similar urban landscape to that ‘Heartlands’ is set in. I’m a big fan of his work.

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