Anthony Cartwright’s new novel Iron Towns bowled me over. It’s set in the industrial heartland of England – memories of the furnaces and forges and hammers and anvils are still alive, the local football team too is living off memories. Resonant fictionalised names are used – Kowton, Oxton, Ironport, the Spider House, Chaintown, Lowtown. The novel is a powerful blend of the mythological, the industrial and the lure of football stardom.
Anthony was spontaneously generous in instigating a mini-reading tour of London back in August. Rather than say anything more about his novel, I’m just going to drop a few extracts that struck me:
- And there along the valley bottom, between the two rivers, is the Anvil Yards, a maze of ancient works and roofless brick factory buildings. The blocks of the old Greenfield Ironworks stand at its heart like some secret kaba. Names from the glory days of a revolution appear on road signs and raised on metal. Newcomen and Stephenson and Darby and Watt. And there at its edge, hard against the banks of the river Chain, is the football ground, built to look like one of the factories, still going, creaking into life for another season, one more year.
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- The players are born within the sound of hammers. Whether a great boom across rivers and docks or the tap, tap, tap from backyard workshops, the sounds of metal and stone are always close by. The rattle of the railway and tram, the tapping of the nailyard, chainyard, pottery, the blasting of stone from quarries, the hacking of coal from deep underground, the roar of a furnace. They hold in them the energy of fire and dammed rivers. Di Stéfano and Billy Wright look out on their iron bridges, Beckenbauer’s dad delivers his post through the snow and ash of ruined Munich, while Jack and Bobby Charlton’s father lies deep underground scraping coal.
- When the supporters pile out on the away car park in Anvil Yards, next to the yellow concrete of the bus station, the sun glints on the towers of scrap over by the canal, and they sing Gyppos, and What a fucking shithole. Some of them take off their shirts. Their blond hair and white bellies move across the plain.
‘Who are yer? Who are yer?’
‘We are iron men, from the Iron Towns, come from the Anvil Yards,’ they reply from the Greenfield end.
- The boy Tyrone is still smiling, looks daft in the sunlit doorway, his eyes following Alina hidden somewhere back in the kitchen. Dee Dee cannot begin to imagine what they are saying to each other, but doesn’t need to, she supposes. She wonders whether to mention him to Alina later, decides not to. She’s never teased her like that, never pried, tried not to show how much she worries, how much she has put into being the girl’s mother, this lovely, lonely girl, and sometimes thinks there is more than one way of spoiling a child.
- Caesar sailed up the river but the people were ready. They set great iron spikes beneath the still waters. Caesar’s ships were drowned and the valley filled with water.
Then Caesar came a third time and the people ran and hid, and the valley filled with ghosts.
There is always a war. Invaders come and go, settle and remain, become the people that live among the valleys and the stones, wait things out, hollow out the hills and burn their black insides. There is always a war, always a fire that burns within, without, and the rivers only ever run with blood.
Arthur died on the muddy, muddy banks.
There was no boat to carry him.
- ‘You’ll have to smarten up your act, love,’ his mother repeated phrases she used to say to him when he was a kid. He smiled at this, a man in his thirties crumpled in the soft armchair in his parents’ front room.
‘All their furniture is too big for the house,’ is something Greta had said to him, and it was true, he’d never noticed before, but it was.
Strangers all of them, to each other, to themselves.
(Eli is Joey’s 92 year-old father, who occasionally disappears on a ramble)
- At least the riots were in the summer. He’d got the bus out towards the flyover to go and have a look at the trouble himself, a bonfire burning in the Tesco car park at four in the afternoon. Young lads tried to nick trainers at the shopping village. Joey could never get to the bottom of whether Eli had gone to tell them all to go home or whether he thought the revolution had come at last.