Following an approach from the freelance journalist Chris Arnot last week, I underwent a telephone interview with him about Muslim communities in the Black Country to support his research into writing an article about Anthony Cartwright’s novel, ‘Heartland’. The article has now been written and published and is reproduced below. The original article can be found on the Guardian website by clicking here.
Landscape of neglect is fertile breeding ground for far right extremism
Fact and fiction blur as Heartland novelist Anthony Cartwright take Chris Arnot on a tour through estates of despair
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.
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.
“Fiction allows you to explore ideas and motivation in a bit more depth than a current affairs programme can hope to do,” Cartwright suggests. And a novelist with his background is better placed than most to do that, because of where he comes from and where he went to. Born in Dudley 35 years ago, he graduated from the University of East Anglia and went on to teach in the East End of London after working in factories, pubs, a meat-packing plant, London Underground and Spitalfields market.
“Even in London, there are hidden corners that have more in common with areas like this than a great cosmopolitan city,” he says, gesturing around us at the soulless retail and business parks of post-industrial Dudley. “I taught at the Royal Docks Community School in Newham until 2004, and there were predominantly white estates full of people who felt left behind by the ongoing changes in Docklands.”
He now lives in Nottingham and teaches in Sutton in Ashfield, a former mining town where he encounters children from similarly disillusioned families. “Extremism flourishes,” he maintains, “when people have a perception that they’ve been abandoned and bypassed by the pace of change. There’s always a temptation to look around for simple answers to complex questions.”
Former dockers, miners and foundry workers have one thing in common: at different times in comparatively recent industrial history, they lost not only their incomes but also the self-respect, identity and camaraderie that went with the job.
Our walk from the station to the centre of Dudley takes us along a clogged dual carriageway that could be anywhere in England. At one point, we come across the all-too-typical mixture of multiplex cinema, 24-hour supermarket, DIY superstore and fried-chicken chains. “That’s built on what used to be the county ground, home of Dudley cricket club, where Worcestershire came to play once a season,” Cartwright points out. “Twenty-five years ago, the groundsman took off the covers to find a dirty great hole caused by the limestone workings underneath. They promptly closed it down, along with Dudley Town FC’s ground next door.”
At a stroke went two great sources of local pride and identity. This was the cricket pitch where Basil D’Oliveira hit a century for Worcestershire in the 1960s and Wally Hammond a double century for Gloucestershire in the 1930s. Either man could have glanced up at the castle and idly wondered whether they were on the picturesque Arundel cricket ground in West Sussex. A glance the other way, however, would have encompassed thriving foundries and factories.
There had already been wholesale closures by the time of the cricket ground’s all too symbolic collapse. “Even as a boy, I was aware of this landscape of decay as the physical fabric of the town was boarded up, and that fed into the psychology of the place,” Cartwright recollects. “And at times of economic collapse, people always look around for someone to blame.” In this case, people from the Indian subcontinent, who had come to keep the factories and foundries going in the boom times, says the author. “My inclination is to look a long way from here towards the Thatcher government when it comes to looking for culprits,” he says.
We walk into a central shopping area that has never recovered from the decision in the 1980s to allow developers to build the vast Merry Hill shopping centre a mile or two down the road. Like Meadowhall in Sheffield and the Metrocentre in Gateshead, it was symbolic of the switch from manufacturing to retail as a provider of (lower-paid) employment. Plans have just been announced to close Beattie’s, the only department store in the centre of Dudley. We sit in the panoramic window of its cafe and look out across the dual carriageway that slices through the heart of the town, conveying shoppers towards Merry Hill.
Domes and minarets
Across the road, we can see the waste ground where the Dudley Muslim Association has outline planning permission to build what its many opponents are calling a “super-mosque”. Some 55,000 signatures have been gathered against it on a petition started by Malcolm Davis, a councillor representing the UK Independence party. “It will destroy the ambience of a historic market town with a castle,” he claims, “and make people feel intimidated.” Beyond the cafe window are plenty of buildings out of keeping with a historic market town. But then, they don’t have domes and minarets.
The argument, involving the government inspectorate and appeals to the high court, has been going on so long that Cartwright felt able to include it in a book set in 2002. “Any discussion of the practicalities – such as the fact that the current central mosque is too small – is being drowned out by the noise against Islam,” he says. “While I was writing the book, there was similarly orchestrated opposition to a mosque in West Ham [in east London].”
Cartwright uses the literary device of having the Dudley mosque being planned for the site of an old steelworks. In reality, it was Merry Hill that was built partly on the site of the old Round Oak works, which closed in 1982. “They employed 5,000 people and fed the local economy like a generator, whereas Merry Hill has been a sponge, sucking the life out of Dudley,” says Cartwright’s father, Keith. A recently retired engineer, he has joined us for a lunchtime pint in a rare survivor in these parts – a traditional Black Country pub. By now, we’re in neighbouring Netherton, close to the foundry that made the anchor chain for the Titanic. That’s long closed too.
Cartwright senior goes on: “This area has gone through massive socio-economic changes in the past 30 years and there’s understandable discontent. That’s what the far right pick up on.” And that’s why the fictional Jim Bayliss finished his political career a disillusioned man. As it says in Heartland: “Jim became a councillor in 1979, against the prevailing mood. He thought he was doing his bit for Cinderheath, Dudley, England, the Labour movement, the working class.”
But the ground was shifting under the working class and sinking, like an old cricket pitch falling into the limestone workings that once fed the iron and steel-making process in the workshop of the world.