Anthony Cartwright’s The Cut and Iron Towns both conjure a certain sense of eeriness. The sense of the eerie here, and its conceptualization, stem from Mark Fisher’s writing in The Weird and the Eerie: whereby the eerie is summarized as ‘a failure of absence or by a failure of presence.’ It is not so much the horrifying confrontation of these lacunae, but rather the creeping, penumbral sense of such absences, that I find in Cartwright’s works. Fisher, in the opening pages of the book writes: ‘The eerie concerns the most fundamental metaphysical questions one could pose, questions to do with existence and non-existence: Why is there something here when there should be nothing? Why is there nothing here when there should be something?’ According to Fisher the eerie does not have the confrontational sense of shock that the weird manifests as but rather works on a sort of phenomenological negation or epistemological inexactitude: he used terms like ‘disengagement’, ‘serenity’, ‘calm’ and ‘detachment’ that nonetheless grant access of a glimpse or suspicion of the ‘forces which govern mundane reality but which are ordinarily obscured’
It is the creeping periphery, the liminal clue, of sensing the great forces at play that Cartwright’s protagonists evoke so well. His male anti-heroes don’t so much confront the eerie as stoically exist through it, and brush up against it as their world and memories float past. Cartwright’s protagonists in The Cut and Iron Towns are faded sportsmen; men who are out of joint with their world and past their prime. Or, to put it another way, do not know what they can offer the place they inhabit and, conversely, sense a vague absence, as if something is missing, in the places they visit.
These places could be canals, work-yards, railway lines, mines and public houses. The Cut explores the existential emptiness of a retired boxer, Cairo Jukes, as he searches for work, friendliness, purpose and belonging in Dudley, West Midlands. Iron Towns is set in the fictional Iron Town, yet is not far removed from Netherton, again in the West Midlands, and focuses mostly on Liam Corwen, a footballer who played for England, albeit for 46 seconds, and has since wound up back at his home club. Each novel concerns itself with male protagonists’ existence in a post-industrial ‘Black Country’.
The term, ‘Black Country’ is telling on a number of levels. Elihu Burritt, Abraham Lincoln’s consul, brought the term into common usage when he observed the region to be ‘Black by day, red by night.’ Yet the first recorded term is from a toast speech given by Mr Simpson, a town clerk, addressing a Reformer’s meeting on 24th November 1841. Genetic foibles aside, the term is ripe for import. Burritt’s use is echoed in the recollection of Cairo’s father in The Cut: ‘‘You’d look out at night and all you could see was light – fires from the furnaces, you know, as far as you could see, the place all lit up. There was work for all the men.’ I add emphasis to the past tense: there is not that type of work in the region any more. The fires that lit the nights have long since burnt out. Burritt’s phrase is no longer applicable; it is more a case of ‘Black by day, blacker by night.’ It is a shadowy post-industrial world, devoid of light (the traditional western short-hand for hope) bar the icy glow of smartphone screens in bedrooms.
Black Country can be taken in a metaphorical sense. Re-read as indicative of the galling lacuna of agency and representation that the protagonists of The Cut and Iron Towns endure in the skeletal cadaver of heavy industry. A void, a black hole, shadowy and palimpsest, where something was: like the murky depressions of subsidence above abandoned mines that pockmark the landscape. The land of the region is prone to subsidence; it is covered in craters, like the moon – except, unlike the moon, no one is looking and people live here. Today, the depressions that besmirch the fields in the area harbor post industrial depression: pools of young men drinking cans or doing drugs, a nihilistic expression of a young men’s energies.
The canals that scar the land, a jolly geo-industrial taxidermy by Inland Waterways Association, (the co-founder of which was ‘horror’ writer, Robert Aickman) are eerie reminders of what is now missing. The canals are dotted with hunched fishing men; no industry uses these ways. A shire-horse hasn’t trod such paths for years yet the cuts of a million ropes from a bygone boom-time, the ones that pulled the heavy laden long boats along, gouged cuts in the canal side bricks that are still visible today. The claw marks of a monster that once stalked and ravished the land and whose fires lit the night skies. The mythic history of industrial growth, it may as well be for the kids here now, for neither myth nor history are present except in trace and tale – both share the present though their absence and past-tense.
The protagonists of The Cut and Iron Towns are men of physicality. Their identity is about what they can do with their bodies against material and in space. But their identity is also constituted by negation, by loss – they once could do much more, run faster and hit harder, than the abilities of the two characters we meet in the books. Twilight men: age has caught up with them; they ache from the erosions of time. Their bodies do not offer what they once could. It is in this sense that Liam Corwen and Cairo Jukes embody the recent history of working class male in the Black Country who once mined, hammered and wrenched against the world: the various materials of industry, yet do not do so now. ‘I could’ve gone pro’ is the familiar pub lament of depressive and nonchalant machismo. Yet, in these novels Cairo and Liam are men who were pro. This distant historical realization of most men’s sporting dream is not the point: it is their fall, their loss and demise instead. These two protagonists are allegorical figures of the generations born into a land that never offered the chance of professional physical laboring. Because, as any quantifiable survey of work opportunities between Wales and Birmingham will attest to, there haven’t been mass professional laboring opportunities for man(y) for years. Today’s young men don’t have the wistful lament of Cairo and Liam who ‘were pro’ nor do they enjoy the luxury of missed opportunity of ‘could’ve gone pro’, no, for young men wishing to labour in the Midlands the prospect is profoundly more nihilistic: ‘wasn’t ever, won’t ever’. Cairo’s training in The Cut is the further register of this tension: that of the energetic and strong male body born into a landscape (replete with the accouterments of industrial transportation) that no longer requires its energies. His family and friends even question his motives for jogging, and ask what he is training for. A body in a landscape that no longer needs him – what exactly is Cairo running for? But questions of what is symptomatic, not the problem itself – the problem is that there is still the body to use, to put to work. This is the physical eeriness in The Cut. Cairo has a strong body in a world that no longer requires it, his energy is a presence where there should be an absence (the world no longer calls for his physical toil), and conversely, the place reflects an absence of requirement, it doesn’t need him.
The question of outlets for young people’s energies is one that haunts the western world. One I’ve written about before. As coffee shops and call centers pop up between the vacant arteries of heavy industry, people are increasingly sedate (not by choice). Attention, cognitive labour, faux-empathy and grins are sold for recompense but the body still needs exercise. The creatine’d up buff ‘n’cut office gym-shark is symptomatic of this shift; albeit one that flips the traditional parameters of purpose. Physical work is not the end but the means; there is no end in the normalized narcissism of Droste-effect vanities. The common motivational phrase of ‘Get fit’ harbours a subtle fallacy: it implies conclusion. There is no conclusion. The 24-hour gym is everything that post-modern exercise should be, a Shepard-tone of endless, placeless, despatialised and monetized exertion. Any ground covered, mountain climbed, steps, reps or gains are immaterial and virtual. The only empirical referent is the mirror, the void of oneself.
Within the narratives of The Cut and Iron Towns is a sense of the eerie, analogous to Fisher’s on a conceptual level but not in how it is manifested. For me, The Cut and Iron Towns evoke, what I call, the social-eerie of post-industrial post-modern existence. The eerie in these novels is not one of alternate dimensions, stone walls with agency, or supernatural forces (although there is an argument for the registers of globalization to be akin to a supernatural force) but one of social loss, a nagging sense of a loss that cannot quite be articulated or addressed directly by the books characters.
Pubs are a case in point. In The Cut, Cairo Jukes repeatedly visits local pubs in Dudley. It is here where I feel social-eeriness sharpest. Cairo, when he visits a pub, knows to go to the bar and order a drink. He can do so, yet something is missing, there is a nagging absence simmering beneath the surface of buying a drink and drinking the drink. At one stage in the book Cairo reminisces about how he used to go to the pub, not drink, not even approach the bar, not even step into the thick of the crowd, but stand at the door and nod and smile at the faces of people he knew. This nostalgia is the most pointed register of the changing nature of public houses. Public houses, social spaces that had roofs, warm fires and drinks, were only partly about beer. Traditionally people would go the public house on the way home, spend a bit of time there keeping warm, maybe having a drink, and talk to other people in the community. The pub served as a public halfway house (geographically and culturally) between work and home. Crucially it was a warm social and public space – a place to kill some time in, so as to economize on home heating costs. A trip to the pub meant the home fire could be lit later. Many pubs have closed since the smoking ban of 2007. But the role of the pub, as a pivot-point in the daily routine of people within a local area, is now threatened – not by the illegality of public space smoking but by the forces that have re-shaped the movements of people. Increased travelling for work and the lack of local laboring opportunities has eroded the footfall for many pubs. Public houses no longer serve as a localized geo-political social nexus hubs, but are stripped down to the arbitrary level of their economic function: the business of selling liquid products. The CAMRA pub is a Thatcherite ghoul. It provides phantom authenticity with all the social and communal possibility stripped away and instead emphasizes the superiority of its product as its marker of value. Market materialism trumps social interactions. It is this strange eeriness that I see in Cairo’s pub visits. The hostle turned hostile. He is set up to expect social interaction, a sense of place, routine – not conviviality, but at least a sense of social embeddedness. Not harmony or integrity but at least an orientation. Yet he finds nothing, the whole layout, the tables and chairs, the broad-street central location, the fossilized architecture preserved from another time, all point him to expect something, but that social something, is not there. Only the bar, beer, tills and tables remain, eerily vacated by something other than people.
But social-eerie must not be conflated with nostalgia or longing. Cairo’s father, in The Cut, is clear that the old ways of life, the grueling back-breaking heavy labour is not welcome to return – but, nonetheless, something has gone with it:
My ancestors was nailers and puddlers and coal-pickers and navies and so on. They dug canals and tunnels. My ode mon dug rock out the hill under the castle. None of them jobs exist no more. They ay done for years. Maybe that’s a good thing. Folks had hard lives. And things am easier now. Some things am easier. Although you wouldn’t think it, some of the things that have happened, some of the stuff the young uns face now. What I’m saying is you shouldn’t wish it back, but we never wished for the way things am today either.
His wife, dismisses the old man’s convoluted train of thought, ‘I doh see the point of keep looking back , Cairo, I really doh. I’ve told him, get on with things.’ But the old man’s point is not one of longing, retrospection or nostalgia. He doesn’t wish the work back. But he does feel something else is missing. The hard, exploitative and notoriously dangerous work of industry is gone. Good riddance. But something else went with it. To miss this subtlety of what is being missed, but not named or articulated, in traditionally working class post-industrial areas (i.e. not the work of yesteryear) is to veer close to the confident naivety of conservative middle to upper class perspectives: that working folk need work.
Dominic Sandbrook, privately educated in Bridgenorth (a well-heeled town in Shropshire that is close to but not considered part of the Black Country (he now lives in Chipping Norton, and supports Wolverhampton Wanders...)) before completing degrees at Oxford, St Andrews and Cambridge, in the BBC Television four-part series Let Us Entertain You (an adaptation of his The Great British Dream Factory: The Strange History of Our National Imagination) makes this overly reductive slip. He points, with the willful avuncularity that is the preserve of the few, to the violence in Glasgow depicted by Irvine Welsh in Trainspotting and suggests this is what happens when people don’t have work.
Lynsey Hanley, in her brilliant book Respectable: TheExperience of Class, points to a study, ‘Living Inferiority’, by Simon Charlesworth, Paul Gilfillan and Richard Wilkinson. The study argues that ‘the quality of social relations in working-class areas has deteriorated with the decline of industry there, and that the relationships between atomized, unemployed or insecurely employed men are now characterized by violence or the threat of it.’ Hanley doesn’t directly criticize this argument (she does in fact criticize a far more uncomfortable facet of the study – you’ll have to buy the book to find out), but rather points out that violence has always existed. But still, the underlying logic of Charlesworth, Gilfillan and Wilkinson’s study is there: that the working folk’d be alright if only they could occupy themselves at the lathe…
Of course, employment is a problem in parts of the UK in post-industrial neglect. People do need work for money. The food bank boom is testament to this. But, some problems cannot be solved by money or work – it is these problems, these social problems and the concomitant existential destabilization they bring that Cairo experiences in the eerier parts of The Cut and which his father wishes to bemoan but cannot find the words for.
Cartwright’s fiction is notable in that it avoids what I call 'kitchen-sink materialism' and instead evokes the plights and woes of its characters in a more oblique and atmospheric fashion that is characterized by a creeping eeriness. Kitchen-sink materialism is the tendency for films and literature to insist on narratives working through physical or visible manifestations of everyday problems. Let’s stick with the issue of unemployment. Old films like Brassed Off and The Full Monty, just before the UK broadband boom, do this – but back then the physical work of going door to door asking for work was not too far removed from life. However, today a problem such as looking for work or not getting work is de-materialised. The lack of employment is not experienced in a manner that is easy to set into a narrative for page or screen – there are no doors closed in one’s face or rejection letters landing on the doorstep. Contemporary unemployment is closer to eeriness, to a vague absence one cannot quite see or address, than the kitchen-sink materialism of Ken Loach’s recent film I’ Daniel Blake. In this film we see Blake sat in front of a computer, frustrated at the Kafkian absurdity of having to wade through cyber-admin mazes in order to access and apply for jobs. But this depiction is all too visible – for most people the search for work is an online endeavor that never returns. The constant presence of a smartphone that never returns an email (because, as anyone who has used job websites knows, rejection is never announced) is more realistic – an unsuccessful application doesn’t elicit anything as tangible or visible as a kindly bureaucratic rejection email. Cartwright’s fiction mostly avoids the pitfall of reverting to dated depictions of unemployment, isolation and disenchantment by conjuring the eerie – by evoking an absence of something, but an eerie absence of something one cannot quite place. The eeriness here is precisely that the thing that is absent is not defined are articulated, but there is, nonetheless, an uncomfortable absence all the same. Cartwright’s fiction puts the eerie to good use. It lends a potent contemporary realism to his fiction. Unemployment and social atomisation are difficult to define, but by evoking the eerie rather than trite kitchen-sink materialism his work feels truer to contemporary existence.