Anthony Cartwright: Heartland
If you don’t speak the local dialect of Dudley or, more particularly, Tipton, two small towns in the West Midlands of England, you may struggle a bit with this book, as Cartwright uses his transcription of the local dialect for most of the dialogue. If you do, you will find a fascinating post-9/11 English novel. Tipton, as the link points out, is one of those unusual places not to have a middle class. What it does have is a racial mixture – white, black and South Asian. Cartwright’s story is about the issues between these races, primarily between the whites and South Asians.
Rob is a footballer. His father had been a successful footballer, playing for Wolves (Wolverhampton Wanderers) in the Stan Cullis era when they were among the best teams in England, if not Europe. He had been in and out of the team – his style of play seemed to be ahead of its time – and was about to make the breakthrough when he had a horrible injury which ended his football career and nearly ended his ability to walk. Rob has been less successful but has had trials with Wolves and Aston Villa and briefly played for a couple of lesser teams. Now, at the age of thirty, he is reduced to playing for a local amateur team and is feeling his age. His job is assisting at a local school, both with sports and also as a reading assistant. The level of literacy and education at the school is quite low and Cartwright makes it clear that standards have gone down. Rob is generally a decent man, friendly with all races and trying to help when he can. He had been friends with Adnan but Adnan had gradually become obsessed with computers and, instead of going to university as was expected, became a taxi driver before driving off one day in his taxi, never to be heard of again. Of course, we do hear of him again (though most of the characters do not) and one or two of them believe that he may have been involved in the 9/11 events.
While telling the stories of the various people in Tipton, Cartwright has two threads running through the whole book, both football matches. The first is the famous England versus Argentina grudge match in the 2002 World Cup. Every couple of pages we get a brief bit of commentary on the match, right up to the final result, as well as the reactions of those watching including, of course, Rob. Other is another match played at about this time, of which we also get a commentary throughout the book. Cinderheath is top of the local league on goal difference. Cinderheath is the primarily white team, for which Rob plays. The team just behind is the Cinderheath Mosque team for which Zubair, Adnan’s brother and friend of Rob, plays. The two are playing one another in the final game of the season. Obviously Cinderheath Mosque need to win in order to win the title while Cinderheath merely need to draw. There is another team two points behind but, to win the league, they would not only have to beat Castle Villa but win by more than ten goals, which never happens.
There are other two key characters. The first is Rob’s Uncle Jim who is a Labour councillor. He is running for re-election but faces strong opposition from the BNP, the anti-immigration, racist party. We follow his attempts at getting re-elected, his relationship with his wife, Pauline and his very troubled relationship with his teenage son, Michael. The other key character is Jasmine Qureishi. She is currently back in Cinderheath, working at the school, after a long absence. She had been at school with Rob. Her father is a surgeon who had saved Rob’s father’s life. Rob is very keen on her but she has another love – Adnan. When he left she was upset but it was she who met up with him again. They had an affair. He went to the USA, she followed and then returned to England, expecting him to follow. He did not. Was he involved in 9/11? We learn the truth. Muslim terrorism and general violence are both undercurrents. Three Tipton men were involved in a terrorist attack and were arrested. A Muslim taxi driver was attacked and died. We learn who was to blame for that. Finally, Andre, a young teen, is viciously attacked and stabbed but won’t say who did it or why. The Woodhouse family seemed to be involved in a lot of the negativity and white violence. Rob had lived for a long time with Karen Woodhouse but she left him. But her extended family seems to be at least partially to blame for the other violent incidents we read about.
Cartwright is not trying to cast blame. White violence and Muslim terrorism and distrust between the races are key here. The BNP is clearly gaining in strength but, at the same time, there seems to be at least some positive relations between the races, and not just sexual. Cartwright offers no solutions (except, perhaps, for football!) but does show how middle England has developed post 9/11 but also shows the negative side – violence, quasi-illiteracy and the rise of the BNP and racist politics.
First published 2009 by Tindal Street Press