Anthony Cartwright in Guardian Society

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Fact and fiction blur as Heartland novelist Anthony Cartwright takes Chris Arnot on a tour through estates of despair

Article in Guardian Society
by Chris Arnot

‘There is a passage in Anthony Cartwright’s novel, Heartland, currently being serialised on Radio 4, in which veteran Labour councillor Jim Bayliss ponders why his seat in Cinderheath is under threat from the British National party in local elections in 2002. “How could there be a Labour Party when there was no labour left for it to represent?” he muses. “It had become something else. There were jobs now, of course. The big losses had come some 20-odd years ago, but it was hardly the same – jobs for cleaners and security men, shop work and mobile phone sales… Even the call-centre jobs were going to Bangalore. This was the town’s position in the new world order.”

The town is Dudley, in the West Midlands. Cinderheath is a fictional ward, but Dudley is real enough. It even has its own castle. Cartwright and I can see it impressively cresting the horizon as we trudge the mile or so from Dudley Port station towards the town centre. Along with the adjoining zoo, the castle is what makes Dudley distinctive among the Black Country towns that were collectively known as the “workshop of the world” when Queen Victoria pulled down the blinds on one of the uglier parts of her empire as the royal train passed through. On a sunny, soot-free autumnal day in 2009, we can see the flag of St George fluttering from the castle ramparts.

There were many more such flags around Dudley in the early summer of 2002 – partly because England were playing Argentina in a crucial qualifying group match at the World Cup finals in Japan, and partly for more sinister reasons. “I wanted to capture the fevered intensity of that time,” Cartwright explains. “It was only a few months after 9/11. Three men from Tipton, just down the road, were being held in Guantanamo and someone from the media had come up with the not very helpful term ‘the Tipton Taliban’. There was a feeling around of ‘What’s going to happen next?’ Football seemed to work well as a way of exploring social issues. Supporting England can be massively positive. For people whose identity is predominantly parochial, it can give them something to cohere around. But it can also be exploited by those with another agenda.”

Much of the book switches between Cinderheath FC clubhouse – where players, friends and relatives are gathered to watch Beckham’s boys beat the “Argies” – and a local match between an all-white Cinderheath side and an all-Muslim team, while BNP thugs prowl the touchline.

Gaining ground

Heartland was published by Tindal Street Press in Birmingham earlier this year, shortly before the London literati began debating why so few of the books shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize were grappling with contemporary issues. A few months on, Cartwright suddenly finds himself in demand to help explain why the political far right is gaining ground – perhaps because Radio 4 happened to make this, his second novel, its Book at Bedtime shortly after BNP leader Nick Griffin’s appearance on Question Time.'

You can read the rest of Chris Arnot’s article here.