By Anthony Cartwright
Published by Tindal Street Press
2009, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0-9556476-5-9
Dullness is generally to be avoided in fiction, but on occasion, the backdrop and subject matter of a book calls for a low key, unhistrionic approach. Heartland is Anthony Cartwright’s second novel and constitutes a major stab at capturing the atmosphere of Noughties Britain. Topics include a General Election, a World Cup, the threat of the British National Party, youth crime, racial tension, radical Islam and communities riven by the shutdown of core industries, but the kitchen sink approach is leavened by the everyday normality of life in the West Midlands, the region’s flat vowels reflected in people’s need to simply get on.
Although many of the above events are uppermost in our mind here in 2010, the book is actually set eight years ago, with a lacework of interrelated narratives exploring events in the fictional town of Cinderheath. Time shifts backwards and forwards but we never become disoriented: the text is anchored by snippets from England’s 1-0 win over Argentina in Sapporo: the members of a local football club enjoying the action one lunchtime, a few weeks after competing for the North Dudley and Tipton Sunday League title decider, their opponents an all Muslim team.
The book’s hero is the unremarkable but decent Rob Catesby, a journeyman footballer who failed to make the grade at Aston Villa as a youth and worked his way down through the leagues. Now a teaching assistant, he dabbles with romantic notions surrounding a beautiful Anglo-Asian colleague, unaware that she has conducted a London-based affair with an old pal who went missing many years before. It’s to Cartwright’s credit that he avoids shoehorning in unlikely events for narrative drive: there are dramatic moments; but in the main, outlandish scenarios are avoided. This is Tipton after all.
Cartwright’s use of a Black Country patois is only partially successful and doesn’t quite have the fizz of other creators of regional dialect such as Irvine Welsh or Ross Raisin. His authorial voice tends also towards the modest side and this, along with the fact that the book is published by the small but estimable Tindal Street Press, based in Birmingham’s Custard Factory Complex (a stop off point en route to St. Andrews) means he has probably struggled to attract the attention of prize givers, but this will take nothing away from an understated novel in the classic English realist tradition.
From the Championship point of view, a minor character is depicted refusing to make the trip to Norwich as Wolves imploded in favour of hated rivals West Bromwich Albion in 2002, having wasted an eleven point lead and Catesby’s father himself turned out for the Molineux club in the Billy Wright era of the Fifties, before succumbing to injury. All in all, it’s a more than respectable portrait of our times. Indeed, this Observer review likens the book to B. S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates, the book that partially inspired this website.