When Peirene Press announced that it had commissioned a novel about Brexit, I could not resist getting involved and sponsoring it. Publisher Meike Ziervogel found author Anthony Cartwright, whose previous novels, although ostensibly mainly about football, also portrayed a community in decline. This is the ‘diminished community’ of the Black Country, which used to be one of the most industrialised (and therefore also one of the most polluted) areas of England, with coal mining, steelworks, glass factories and brickworks all spewing their bile into the atmosphere. Nowadays pretty much all of these industries have died and it’s become an area of boarded-up shops and high unemployment. A perfect setting, in other words, for the ‘forgotten people’ who voted for Brexit.
Cairo Jukes from Dudley is a former boxer, already a grandfather in his early forties, and supports himself though hourly work cleaning up industrial sites. His daughter Stacey-Ann has been kicked out by her mother after giving birth to a ‘coloured’ baby and now lives with her grandparents. Then Grace Trevithick turns up in their lives: posh, educated, a successful documentary maker trying to capture ‘the mood of the country’ just before the referendum.
As the two near extremes of the spectrum meet, they find out more about each other’s beliefs and ways of life. As they talk and learn to look beyond the convenient stereotypes, they begin to have a dialogue – that element which was so profoundly missing from the frenzied media hollering just before the EU referendum.
All you people want to say is that it’s about immigration. That we’m all racist. That we’m all stupid. You doh wanna hear that it’s more complicated than that. It lets all of you lot off the hook.
‘I doh think they feel like they’ve lost out. They have lost out.’
‘Isn’t that the same thing?’
‘No, thass part of the problem, thinking that it is. We’m sitting in one of the places we’ve lost. You make out like it’s our problem, it’s only about how we feel, but we have lost… It’s a fact. You can prove it… The loss, actual loss. Jobs, houses, security, all them things.’
Cairo and Grace come together in a moment which feels too brief to be a love story, too steeped in misunderstandings and mismatched expectations to allow for a happy ending. But it is not just a coming together of two individuals and of what they symbolise. There are plenty of characters who dispel the notion of a monolithic Brexit voter. For every Tony ‘in his German car and his Leave sticker, in his Italian shirts, with his English attitudes’ and Romanian and Albanian workers, there is also a younger, confused Stacey-Ann who would like to improve her career prospects and feels that ‘it’s not right, all this carrying on about foreigners, people moving on to get a better life’ but at the same time considers ‘you couldn’t think people were better because they were foreign. Some people did, teachers they’d had at school. That’s just another kind of prejudice.’ For every gentle granddad mourning the lost way of life but admitting that some things are far easier nowadays, there is a table of UKIP voters handing out leaflets in an Indian restaurant.
Cartwright has a great eye for revealing details and the often ridiculous contradictions of both positions. My one criticism of the book is that the phonetic reproduction of the local dialect made it a bit hard going at times. Nevertheless, the remarkable achievement here is that the author makes it far easier to empathise with Cairo and his family, even for those of us who were avid Remainers. A timely and important book, showing us that answers are never simple, but that the only way to progress as a society is to remain open and curious about each other. And really listen.