The plot thickens. Peter C Baker on an expat sportswriter who's crafted a hooligan thriller peppered with memories of Dubai.
I predict a riot
There are still few enough novels set in the UAE that each new one seems to intrinsically merit at least a Saturday afternoon's worth of attention. The most recent, David Williams's partially Dubai-based debut Desert England, features an introduction by the British comedian Eddy Brimson. Publishers around the world, Brimson writes, have "had their eyes opened to a whole new market, a whole movement if you like". And who might comprise this market/movement? Why, football fans! Book-hungry football fans looking for stories "relating to football fans and in particular football hooliganism".
"Oh how times and football have changed!" Brimson hurrahs. Apparently this book boom "would have been unthinkable in the late Eighties to mid-Nineties when the game's supporters were seen by society as being the scum of the earth." Desert England does little to dispel the stereotype. It opens with a shiver coursing down a young woman's spine. "She sensed," narrates Williams, "that something was not right." Enter "hundreds of rampaging men with fists and feet flaying in all directions and at anything that stood in their way." Football hooligans!
We quickly meet John Milton. "Detective Inspector John Milton, that is. Head of the English anti-soccer hooliganism task force." (Why Williams uses "soccer" here and nowhere else is a mystery.) Milton doesn't care much for football, but he hates, hates British football hooligans. To his mind they're pillagers, murderers, war criminals; what's more, they're killing England's chances for hosting the 2006 World Cup. Billions of pounds are at stake.
Milton knows this is the case of his career. After all, he thinks to himself, hooliganism "had become the biggest ongoing news story since the Gulf War". But he's not making any progress, a riot-cum-massacre breaks out at every England away game, his bosses are getting angry, his wife is fed up with his long hours and he can't stop entertaining crazy theories. "He knew that football violence was orchestrated, organised, but could it be that there was some group, some force of trained men pulling the strings? Surely not." Oh, surely.
The investigation seems to have dead-ended when the trusty Sergeant Waite bursts into Milton's office. "Sir," he pants, "you are not going to believe this. We have turned over a whole new leaf in this saga and it is going to give you a hell of a shock." A suspect credit card belonging to one Carson Jacks has been traced to ... Dubai! "Where is Dubai anyway?" wonders Milton. "Saudi Arabia? Don't they cut your hand off for picking your nose over there?"
Off he jets. Arriving at 1am, he declares Dubai "hot, very hot. Bloody hot!" He acquires an Indian driver, Gopal, whom he interrogates about "the fact that you wobble your head every time you speak". ("Oh, sir, it is Indian tradition."). He visits the Burj Al Arab, books a room at the Pheasant Hotel and gets to work, pausing only to read Gulf News and ruminate on multiculturalism. "When in Arabia, do as the Arabs do," he quickly decides. "Despite Britain deciding it would bend over backwards to allow people to do whatever they wanted, there was no reason other cultures should."
Eventually, Milton infiltrates a gang of British expats paid and trained to incite riots at England away games. "The plot thickens," he thinks to himself (really, he does). The men profess to be motivated by love of England and hatred of the greedy non-English. By inciting riots, these Desert Englanders hope to stop the World Cup - and, by association, world culture, international visitors, asylum seekers and the like - from visiting their beloved homeland. "Football is our battlefield, John," explains the mysterious Carson Jacks. "We are proud Englishmen and we need to get our buzz from what we are trained in."
Milton gets to know and enjoy Dubai, and even gets attached to some of his fellow hard-partying hyper-hooligans, especially after he learns their sad backstories (let down by England, the army, and so on). And, of course, the plot twists a few more times before Milton's trap is sprung. Along the way, Sergeant Waite spots Jacks chatting amiably with the German politician Hans Schmidt. "What the hell would Jacks be doing at the Home Office in Germany?" he wonders. Surely not ...
Williams lived in Dubai for three years, working first as the sport editor of Gulf Today and then in media relations. "It was the time of my life," he said. "I really enjoyed the whole expat lifestyle and experience." He currently lives in Jordan, where he is an adviser to King Abdullah's brother, the head of sport in the country. I reached him by phone at the Beijing Olympics. "I took the title from a newspaper article," he explained. "The writer - there were lots of UK travel writers being brought out to Dubai back then - described Dubai as 'England in a desert'. I always liked the phrase, because every time I was in a bar it was full of westerners. You see more English people in a pub in Dubai than you do in London."
Williams has already written a follow-up: "a basically more lighthearted book that looks at a group of guys growing up in a rural community." But he's nervous about disappointing his new-found fans, who have been writing in asking about what's next for John Milton. The plot thickens.