Diary. Thursday 26th February 2004
David Peace is in Waterstones Book Shop on Albion Street in Leeds reading from his latest novel GB84, a day-to-day, diary account of the 1984/85 Miners Strike interspersed with Peaces signature political paranoia and layered, elliptical prose. Peace has flown in to the UK from Japan where he now lives to promote the books release. There are a fair few people in the store, surrounding the author who is stood before some promo blow-ups of the cover with a stack of copies piled up before him.
Peace, dressed in black, seems to be taking it in his stride, answering questions and looking like a literary version of pint-sized eclectic dance music guru Moby. Shaved head, introspective and slightly geeky.
He was born in Ossett, West Yorkshire in 1967. At an early age he became obsessed with the Yorkshire Ripper to the point that he had dark suspicions about his own father being the serial killer and would constantly listen to the hoax tapes of the media dubbed Wearside Jack who claimed to be the Ripper, taunting West Yorkshire Police about their inability to catch him. Following a prolonged period of unemployment, Peace came through the other side, got published and now lives in Tokyo with his wife and kids.
As a novelist, Peaces Red-Riding quartet (the novels Nineteen Seventy-four, Ninety Seventy-seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty-three published by Serpents Tail each year between 1999 and 2002) is an achievement of planning and logistics in itself. Four novels that take real crime including Peaces early fascination with the Yorkshire Ripper as their pivot, though detection is not necessarily their main focus, with a timescale stretching over a decade and a half with four key years, a wide range of conflicting storytellers and their fractured, often fragmentary, viewpoints.
The novels are all written in the first person with the narrative handled by two main voices per book, and the baton of protagonist handed over successively between four very different sets of men through the series Eddie Dunford the ambitious journalist, Jack Whitehead the established journalist starting to lose it (Crime Reporter of the Year 1969 and 1971 becoming his mantra of decline), Peter Hunter the bobby who investigates bobbies, and finally the beer, kebab and casual sex-loving solicitor, big John Pigott. These voices are then surrounded by others the shadowy Reverend Laws, murdered prostitute Janice, and the rent boy BJ who acts as a catalyst for much of what happens. Themes, storylines and characters overlap throughout the books (and sometimes within a single Joycian block of text), and the plot arc over the length of the series largely follows E. M. Forsters rule of always connect. Unexplained and half mysterious happenings and seemingly disparate characters and events in the first novels are seen from a fresh perspective in the latter novels with a realization that everything fits together (almost there are frustrating issues that remain unresolved), engendering in the reader the same feeling as when you get a piece of sky from a jigsaw to finally slot into place after trying to hammer it into the sea for two days. Even if you dont like the picture you end putting together.
The hallmarks of Peaces distinctive writing style in the novels is the brevity of his sentences and paragraphs. Punchy and concise. Add to this strong imagery and a poetic structure to the chapters, and its all slick and very modern. The poetry sections of the prose are largely good, and reasonably accessible, occasionally veering towards the psycadelic, and every now and then slightly annoying. Large chunks of text are frequently repeated as refrains, sometimes embellished as the story progresses (chronologically or not), other times not. These constant refrains can get wearing and occasionally serve to dilute the thrust of Peaces narrative, but in other instances the repetition chimes back in like a chorus and underlines whats happening and who its happening to.
Where Peace scores big time is in applying this tight style in his fictionalisation of real people and events. The (West) Yorkshire references are excellent with the sense of the past and reality tangible. Anyone who was brought up in the West Riding around that time (as I was) can identify with whats happening and how it relates to real life. And Peace curiously ennobles the depressing landscape, the smoke-blackened houses (always that sad yellow stone in West Yorkshire), the weather frequently raining, and the largely faulty people struggling through the economic depression of the 70s and 80s. There, looming over it all, is the shadow of the Yorkshire Ripper, the bogeyman from Peaces childhood. Peace takes this reality and shared past and then shapes it and the people involved to his own purposes. This is a chronological conjuring trick that he shares with Jake Arnott and his time-hopping gangster tales from the Smoke.
Through a subtle use of popular culture touchstones the Ford Cortina in the drive, the Bay City Rollers pumping out of a transistor radio Peace creates a sense of the past and peels back another layer of interest for the reader by them being able to identify with the places and the dates. For anyone whos interested in tracing the footstep of the books many of the places are still there. The Griffin Hotel that features heavily in the novels is even more decrepit. You can still see the old hotel name on the clock face three storeys up, looking down on Boar Lane like a housebound old bloke, the ground floors now a down-market bar for scuffers with some kind of citrus theme; the Strafford just off the Bull Ring in Wakefields still a pub (I expect they had to change the carpet upstairs after the massacre), so is the Horse and Jockey further up the road across from the Army recruiting it always looked a dive. This weight of cultural and social expression is remarkable and a great literary achievement.
However where the series seriously falls down for me is in its almost total lack of humour. Says Peace: Crimes happen in actual, specific places at actual, specific times to actual, specific people. Crimes, their victims and their perpetrators, sadly define the times in which we live. There is no puzzle, only pain. No humour, only horror. Hmmm. I dont agree with the last part of this statement at all. Yeah, fair enough, crime fiction should do more than simply entertain (though Im quite up for being entertained every now and then) and create more than a written version of Cluedo, and real crime is dark and often heartbreaking and frequently makes you fucking furious. But if youre going to write about crime and the people associated with it (on a professional basis, at least) coppers (and by extension, journalists) and in this aim for realism, then you have to realize that, understandably or not, they dont (ostensibly) take everything to heart that they encounter in their working lives, and that while yes the police force can be a cesspit of politics, twilight morals and compromised half-measures there is also a strong seam of camaraderie between clutches of bobbies who go about their jobs with pragmatism and a sense of ambivalence about the way people live their lives and the weirdness they deal with. You shouldnt expect your characters to sympathise with your personal perspective on the world and follow the route that you would take in the same circumstances, which ultimately Peace seems to. Jack Whitehead becomes David Peace rather than David Peace becoming Jack Whitehead, same with Hunter, Dunford and Pigott. Youre shit, Im shit, were all shit, so why should I fucking bother? That seems to be the basic philosophy. Each one of the main voices is totally buggered by the end of their particular book and the general landscape is grim and pessimistic. Nobody laughs ever.
This lack of balance is highlighted by its contrast with one shiny golden nugget of humour in a passage that says more to me about life under Thatcher than three pages of cut and paste stream of consciousness. It comes in Nineteen Eighty-three thanks to the warping mind of John Pigott (not that I think much about the moral rectitude of defence solicitors) and leaps from the page in a way that would have made the rest of the books so much better:
The drive out in the rain
The deserted spaces as depressing as the houses and buildings between them
Jimmy Young kissing Thatchers arse on the radio, the cum drying in his Y-fronts as members of the Great British Public call in:-
Wurzel Gummidge? (referring to Michael Foot) repeats Jimmy with a snigger. Thats not very nice, is it?
No, Jimmy, its not, you shout alone in your car. And neither are you, you thick greedy old cunt. But well not forget you and your cruel ways, not when were round your house to do the Mussolini.
Back in Waterstones, Peace is now reading out a section about Orgreave, the coking plant by the M1 between Rotherham and Sheffield where Miners fought a pitched battle with the police on 18th June 1984 . I listen to the Mohammad Ali prose and Im wondering what someone from West Yorkshire has to say about the strike. The county is after all second only to Nottinghamshire Scab country. More than half of the West Yorkshire miners went back to work long before the NUM had called off the strike, crossing the picket lines in order to pay for the new Vauxhall Chevette, their wives permanent waves and the holiday in Benidorm. Peaces characters are being chased by the police, portrayed as Thatchers thugs which, of course, they were. An illegal use of force for political ends.
I watched them grab this one lad. I watched them beat him to ground. I watched them jump up and down on him. Big black boots on his chest. Up and down. Up and down. They were animals Let loose by government. Free to do what the fuck they wanted They had got away with every single thing theyd tried. Thered be no going back now No rights for ordinary folk now.
Margaret Thatcher initiated the end of the coal industry in Britain, leaving the coalfield communities like Wild West post-gold rush shanty towns in her wake. The arrogance of that government is well summed up in Bernard Inghams response to how he thought Conservative policy had affected South Yorkshire two decades after the year long dispute: Well its certainly greener than it used to be. Twat.
GB84 is constructed in two sections. A day to day diary charting the consciousness of two striking miners and then the main narrative, which is split into the free indirect thoughts of various other players on both sides of the dispute. Scargill, McGregor and most of the factual characters make appearances in one occult form or another. Its not an easy read. Peaces prose style doesnt facilitate a great deal of rapid page turning. Heavy in imagery and clipped sentences, it has the flavour of modern poetry about it. Even the long descriptive narrative parts. Which can get a bit tiring, and in such heavy doses sometimes weakens its impetus and doesnt convey as much as it could. Anyone looking for Keith Waterhouse novel brought through the Miners Strike and written for the 21st Century will be disappointed. In many ways Peaces the plotting and purpose of GB84 reads like a Frederick Forsyth thriller; black budgets and conspiracy. The title declares its real interest the machinations of Right Wing forces which shadowed Harold Wilsons 1970s government (David Sterlings GB75) and those forces operating in the dark corners of the Thatcher regime. For me these are the least convincing parts of the book and the real closeness to the Strike comes with the diaries which chronicle the experiences of ordinary miners. Aside from a sense of treachery that the rest of the book conveys, it is these diary sections that, for me, are the novels main strength. The other characters Terry, Neil, the Mechanic etc remain shadowy, I dont care about them or for them. Theyre cogs, thats all. Peter and Martin, on the other hand, do matter for me. Thats what I read it for. Theyre the mulleted men in donkey jackets that I remember from my childhood.
The last fifty pages or so of the book are far and away the best. When the plotting starts to hit home, and what defeat means becomes palpable particularly Peaces portrayal of National Union of Mineworkers leader Arthur Scargill.
When history examines this dispute, railed the President, there will be a glaring omission the fact that the trade union movement has been standing on the sidelines while this Union has been battered.
Good as it is in many ways, Im not sure GB84 manages to do what Scargill envisioned.
All quotations in this article are for the purposes of review, study or criticism.