David Peace interviewed by Andy Hedgecock
Back in the autumn of 2004, we interviewed David Peace (issue 39 of The Third Alternative). At that point Peace's reputation was growing: he had been nominated as one of Granta's 'Best of Young British Novelists of 2003'. And he had published his first five books – a dark and disturbing quintet consisting of gothic misadventures in a Yorkshire landscape related in the 'Red Riding' quartet and GB84, Peace's visionary inquest into the miner's strike of the mid-1980s. Together they constitute a secret history of a decade of corruption and upheaval which redefined British society, politics and culture, and which continues to influence – and to limit – the way we live now.
This is the theme that dominates the interview, but there is a flash-forward to his controversial séance cum psychodrama involving Brian Clough's 44 days at Leeds United, The Damned United (which then had the working title of DUFC). The equally controversial film version is due for imminent release, with Michael Sheen as one of the few managers to appear on a miners' picket line and to sponsor the Anti Nazi League.
Other works in progress mentioned by Peace include a planned series reimagining the post-war history of Tokyo: the first book Tokyo Year Zero, published in 2007, is Peace's most recent book. UKDK, concerning the fall of Harold Wilson and rise of Thatcher, remains a work in progress.
The last thing I'd have anticipated when I interviewed David Peace was that five years later I'd be watching an adaptation of his first book Nineteen Seventy-Four so good it's a contender for the best drama of the decade. I thought it was brilliant but unfilmable, but Tony Grisoni's adaptation went straight onto my desert island DVD list with The Boys from the Blackstuff, Edge of Darkness, The Singing Detective, GBH and Our Friends in the North.
I can hardly wait for the next two films in the series. In the meantime here's what David Peace told TTA's readers in 2004.
England: Year Zero
Literary exile David Peace takes Andrew Hedgecock on a disturbing trip down memory lane…
To read David Peace is to be lured into a minefield of baleful collective memory and daunting personal reflection. His bleak, feverishly imagined and angry novels are exhausting evocations of the appalling spectres and ugly spectacles of the 1970s and 1980s – an era when the British psyche slid into the ooze of corruption, apathy and callous self-interest from which it has still to surface.
Peace’s ‘Red Riding Quartet’ consists of four visceral, disturbing and complex crime novels (Nineteen Seventy-four, Nineteen Seventy-seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty-three) set in West Yorkshire in the 1970s and early 1980s. At their heart is the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper and its fallout.
The plotting is labyrinthine, the language densely poetic, the narrative fragmented and – at times – surreal. Peace takes risk with content – a reviewer on Amazon.co.uk describes Nineteen Seventy-four as “disturbed to the point of insanity, sickening to the point of physical nausea.” He experiments with form and style too: Nineteen Eighty, for example, includes a series of ‘transmissions’ – stream of consciousness interludes between chapters, in which the voices, or psychic emanations, of killer and dead victims overlap.
He’s been compared to James Ellroy, Brett Easton Ellis and David Lynch: his work is a synthesis of the American ‘hardboiled’ tradition, classic urban horror and – as suggested by the collective title of the quartet – dark fairy tale. But to pigeonhole these books as ‘literary noir’ is to fail to engage with the author’s concerns. Peace approaches his work with a degree of rigour, integrity and social engagement seldom witnessed since the passing of the golden age of political theatre.
He sees the crime novel as a medium for social comment, asserting that crimes define our lives and times. And he’s often made the case against the introduction of humour (however bleak) into crime. Behind every narrative, he argues, are victims; the victims’ friends and families; and a perpetrator’s friends and family: it’s a genre where writers have deep obligations to the events that inspire them, however loosely. It’s not just the raw horror of Peace’s writing that reclaims crime as a fictional form for adults: it’s the way his stories advance, unflinchingly, to inescapable conclusions about the moral bankruptcy of modern societies. The unifying theme of his five books to date is the effect of the contemporary retreat from politics and spiritual belief in creating a crueller, more dangerous world for us to inhabit.
Peace acknowledges his obsession with the desolation and alienation of modern urban life – particularly life in northern England – but he doesn’t let it define him. When I ask how he copes with immersing himself in the psychological deterioration of his characters and the disintegration of the soul of Britain, his answer is refreshingly straightforward: “The traditional ways – drink and football.”
But he’s a writer for whom crime can never provide escapist entertainment – it has to deal with the social and political forces that provide the context for its violent and transgressive acts. And, on one level, the Red Riding Quartet is a journey into a socio-political heart of darkness. It’s the story of how a far from perfect way of life, but one based on a fragile tradition of mutual aid, was gradually infected with the aggression, shallowness and greed that have come to define it today.
“My view of life in contemporary Britain is essentially pessimistic,” Peace tells me. “And that pessimism is further fuelled every time I switch on the TV, click on the Internet, or venture out of the house. I recommend the avoidance of all three. That way you’ll not suffer disappointment and anger that things did not get better after 1997.
“The majority of the population still work in the least protected and most underpaid jobs in Western Europe. They live in fear of malicious unemployment benefits and miserable state pensions, cared for by a chronically under-funded health service and protected by an inept police force that clears up only 18% of all crime. Meanwhile, Her Majesty’s Government turn a blind eye, or a greased palm, to the £85 billion in lost tax channelled into offshore havens.”
Peace left Britain to live and work in Istanbul soon after the 1992 General Election. These days he lives in Tokyo with his wife and children. Was it this despairing view of British life and culture that led him to move abroad?
“I had personally reached a point of no return in 1992 and it did seem to chime with the times; 1991 to 1993 is an interesting period, during which reported crime rose 11 percent a year – over triple the three percent yearly average of 1981 to 1991. So something was clearly afoot in those miserable years. Of course, crime is falling now – apparently. But that point of no return came for me in Manchester – ‘Gunchester’ as it was then known. There was something in the air and, in retrospect, the death of James Bulger and the West case seem almost inevitable.“
Liverpool to Hull and all points north
David Peace was born in Ossett, West Yorkshire in 1967. Inevitably, the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper cast a gigantic shadow over his childhood and early teens. At the time, there was a genuine fear the Ripper might kill a woman you knew, or that he might even be a man you knew. This fear seeped into the Red Riding Quartet; so too did Peace’s despair at the failure of the authorities to stop the killings. I ask him to what extent these factors informed his ambition to write crime stories.
“In most respects, I had a very happy and secure childhood but I always felt a tremendous degree of menace beyond the garden gate. And the Yorkshire Ripper seemed to personify that dread. My own reading during that time was very much Sherlock Holmes and Marvel Comics and it inspired me to try, as a ten-year-old, to catch the Ripper; making an office in the back of the garage, keeping the cuttings and so on. And, I think now, the seeds were sown with the collision of those events, at that time and place; and by my own personal proximity to it all.”
As time passed Peace was affected by a growing idea that something more than chance had dictated that Peter Sutcliffe’s atrocious killings took place in Yorkshire in the 1970s. The books examine a tinderbox of factors – venal and incompetent police; brutish attitudes to women; and the violence simmering below the surface of life in the centre of northern towns and cities.
I was a teenager in Doncaster at the height of Sutcliffe’s reign of terror, and I remember all too vividly the despair, alienation and untrammelled aggression evoked by Peace. The sense of a community at war with itself was there, even before Mrs Thatcher’s big push against the ‘enemy within’. Does he believe there was an unravelling of social cohesion that affected Yorkshire more than the rest of the country?
“I’m not sure; I actually feel that unravelling cut a swathe from Liverpool to Hull and all points North. The unhappiest times of my life were in Manchester and I think that city in particular, more than Leeds in many respects, most represented the post-industrial North – that alienation and despair that is most obviously captured in the music of Joy Division.”
Music plays a huge part in Peace’s books: he uses it for period detail, to develop an ironic counter-commentary on his narrative and to augment the reader’s emotional response to his stories. I ask which other musicians have played an important part in his work.
“It does vary from book to book, and I do use the music of the times I am writing about as soundtrack and inspiration – for example, Bowie’s Diamond Dogs and Nineteen Eighty-four were models for Nineteen Seventy-four; while Throbbing Gristle and Dante’s Inferno were important to Nineteen Eighty. Over the years, the words and music of Mark E. Smith and The Fall have been important to me. But so too have the paintings of Francis Bacon and the films of Alan Clarke – these have all been pretty consistent sources – their very British voices and visions an inspiration.”
Peace’s physical connection with the north of England ended with his move to Tokyo, but his love-hate relationship with the region continues. All four of the Red Riding books were written in Japan, as was his latest novel, GB84, a multi-layered re-imagining of the miners’ strike of 1984–5. And he’s dealt with the critical events of his childhood and youth from the perspective of an adult with children of his own. How have the distancing effects of self-imposed exile, maturity and parenthood impacted on the way he’s approached these stories?
“I’m not sure; some days I don’t think I could have written the books I have, had I been living in England. But from 1987 to 1992 I was writing, albeit unsuccessfully, while living in the UK and I was writing about the Ripper – among other things. However, in practical terms: I do think the distance has given me the discipline, and the isolation has given me the time. Also, clichéd as it sounds, the births of my children certainly matured me and made me re-engage in a more political sense with the wider world. I think it’s quite obvious which one of my novels was written by a lonely, drunken misanthrope.”
Like the late Dennis Potter, Peace is an artist who ploughs the fertile furrows of his early life over and over again. Every time he does so, the process yields a new perspective on the development of our culture and – he acknowledges – an opportunity to explore and make sense of his own development. But isn’t the process of conducting a narrative séance with the ghosts of your youth a dangerous and exhausting process?
“The ‘transmissions’ in Nineteen Eighty were tough. And so was the whole of GB84 – it very nearly wrecked my marriage but, to some degree, dealing with the demands of this kind of fiction is a matter of choice.”
Which brings us to Peace’s most recent book, GB84, a conspiracy thriller based on sedulous factual research and, according to the author, an occult history of the miners’ strike of 1984–5.
Making the new reality
From where I’m sitting there’s no escape from the miners’ strike – even after 20 years. If I glance to the right of my VDU there’s the framed certificate the National Coal Board gave my father after their cull of colliery managers after the strike. It commemorates his 44 years in the industry and is signed by the loathsome Ian McGregor, Chairman of the Board and Margaret Thatcher’s hatchet man. It’s a reminder of a big part of my dad’s life, and a reproach to me: I should have done more to support the miners when it was, to borrow the words of Matt Johnson of The The, “high noon at the UK corral”.
If I take a break from slaving over a hot keyboard for TTA and step out of my front door, I can see two hills hewn from the earth by artifice rather than nature. To the south there’s an Iron Age earthwork; to the north, in the distance, a re-landscaped colliery tip planted with grass and trees. And, I have to admit, this part of Nottinghamshire has never looked better: thirty years ago it was the East Midlands’ answer to Mordor, these days it looks like the Shire. Every trace of the mining industry has been swept away – pit tips; winding gear; black, towering chimneys; lowering buildings of leprous brick; and the carcasses of rusting, discarded machines. Time and European funding heal all wounds to the landscape.
But it wasn’t just the trappings of industry that were erased in the fall-out of the miners’ defeat: whole communities were fatally damaged. There are seven former mining villages within 15 minutes drive of my home: they’re muddling along on government and EU support in the face of all the predicable problems: vandalism, child poverty, drink, heroin, soaring school exclusions, teenage prostitution, casual violence, burglaries and loan sharking.
But most people where I live – a commuter village that grew from a farming rather than mining tradition, and home to an unlikely number of management consultants – don’t see any of that. For many, the demise of the mining industry is something that had a beneficial effect on local property prices. They do wonder, every so often, why their cars keep getting nicked. This may all seem a little romantic – I certainly wouldn’t want my kids to work on a coalface – but I’m convinced the aftermath of the strike saw the loss of something good, something significant, from the national psyche. We lost, to quote the Scottish crime writer William MacIllvanney, the idea that “we share in other people or we forgo ourselves.”
The major theme of GB84 is how we arrived at this point in our socio-political development: how empathy with those less fortunate drained from British life; how our social cohesion fractured. Another concern is the concealed power of the British State and its willingness to resort to naked violence whenever subtler ways of influencing its subjects break down.
The book is charged with a feeling of regret that the miners were left to slug it out alone in the period when the sleep of reason had bred a monstrous (in every way) Tory majority in the Commons. And, I suggest to Peace, there’s regret for the passing of an era when the people of this septic isle were a little less obsessed with share prices, the housing market and celebrities.
“As I did the research for GB84, I felt a tremendous guilt at the suffering and sacrifice of the striking miners and their families, and a real anger that a society which would make such sacrifices for other people and suffer for its beliefs was gone. So that sense of loss is certainly there, but I fight hard to keep it in its place, to fight against my own romantic and nostalgic notions of ‘banners and bands’; we were all culpable in that loss, all complicit in making the new reality (then and now). As Brecht said: ‘Do not build on the good old days, but on the bad new ones.’”
GB84 is crammed with deftly sketched thugs, union officials, financiers, pickets and political manipulators – their paths intersecting in a sinister, all-consuming conspiracy. I put it to Peace that the portrayal of historically based plots and intrigues in fiction is inevitably problematic: many readers see conspiracy as oversimplification – a denial of the chaotic and complex nature of life.
“I think, with no disrespect, the difficulties lie more with editors, publishers, critics and journalists – or with their perceptions of the public. It’s not really that long since The Godfather and Leon Uris’s Trinity were atop the bestseller lists. So I don’t worry, I just write what I feel needs to be written – chaotic and complex historical conspiracies.”
James Ellroy is the writer to whom Peace is most frequently compared, but his political engagement, formal innovation and stylistic invention place him in a tradition that is radical in every way. More apposite comparisons, moving beyond the obvious correspondence of genre elements, would be with John Dos Passos’ USA trilogy and Downriver by Iain Sinclair. Peace has developed a mode of storytelling that includes reportage, interior monologue, dreams, bursts of prose-poetry, colloquial streams of consciousness and fast cutting between points of view – all fused with traditional elements of the thriller and historical epic. In GB84, he also interweaves a parallel narrative crammed with visionary references to a mythic version of England. What aspects of his subject matter drew Peace to this elaborate narrative collage?
“The very complexity of the 1984–85 Strike; the numbers of people involved; the various sides that were taken; the differing perspectives and so on. To try to portray that time from top to bottom, from left to right – it demanded a detailed and multi-voiced narrative.”
Reviews of GB84 tended to focus on its ironic take on recent history, its powerful evocation of place and its deft handling of the violence, hardship and chaos of the strike. But, for me, the symbol-strewn streams of consciousness are at least as important in getting behind the events presented in the newsreels, political memoirs and cuttings libraries. I ask Peace if he felt dealing with recent history through parallel 'realistic' and ‘visionary’ strands of narrative provided greater access to the truth behind a deliberately occluded series of events.
“The subject matter and the approach go hand in glove but, to some extent, there is an element of the ‘idiot savant’ at work. It really is how my mind works – or breaks; the documentary elements inspire the symbolic material and vice-versa: the dreams lead me back to their documentary source. The book is about the things we know, the things we don’t and the things between.”
Dissent is hard to articulate in an era in psychological thrall to the ideas and language of unrestrained consumerism and the free market. It’s easy to forget what little we ever knew of the truth: for example, there’s a widely held belief the miners failed because Arthur Scargill led them into a strike without an official mandate, but there was a ballot. Peace’s description of GB84 as an “occult history” of the period suggests the collaboration of author and readers in a sort of narrative séance – to dispel the wall of illusion that still obscures the truth about the government’s role in provoking, prolonging and breaking the strike.
“I was referring to the occluded facts about the strike and suggesting that to decipher the codes and symbols of the period you need to become a modern alchemist. I was also hinting at a supernatural element.”
The book presents its people of power as modern black magicians: it’s clear they disturb and fascinate the author. This is a vision that dovetails with the emerging historical record. The government and its co-conspirators used anti-union mantras and demonised’ Arthur Scargill; they wrote and enacted the brutal ritual of the battle between cops and pickets at Orgreave; and, finally, they re-made Britain in their image by a near-magical act of will.
The title, Peace reveals, has its roots in the activities of these shadowy manipulators:
“Originally, it was to have flashbacks to the disputes of 1972, 1974 and 1981. However, ultimately, I felt these sections lessened the intensity of the 1984 narrative and almost came as a relief. But, from these narratives and other areas of research, I became intrigued by the private armies of 1974 and the various plots to unseat the Labour Government of Harold Wilson. One such organisation was David Stirling’s GB75; hence the title. It’s a period I plan to excavate in much more detail in my seventh book – UKDK.
“I plan very, very far ahead: the next two novels are DUFC and UKDK. DUFC is ‘inspired’ by Brian Clough’s 44 days at Elland Road and is a return to Leeds in 1974. Then, as I said, UKDK is the fall of Wilson and rise of Thatcher – a prequel of sorts to GB84. I am also working on a quartet of novels that, hopefully, will document the rise of Tokyo from the Occupation to the Olympics – 1946 to 1964. The intention is, however, to publish these in Japanese first. There will be another book about the Yorkshire Ripper too.”
In other circumstances, the announcement of a fifth book set in an author’s familiar milieu might suggest a focus on the ‘ker-ching’ of the tills in Waterstones at the expense of literary craft. But no-one who has read Peace will have any doubt about his integrity. If he feels the rich seam of the Ripper is far from mined out, we can be certain the events of thirty years ago have something new to tell us about the way we live now.
The early twenty-first century is an era in which we’re coming to the condition of political philosopher Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man. The retreat from politics and spirituality has left a vacuum of meaning that’s being filled by commerce.
We’re distracted from the underlying reality of our world by the instant gratification afforded by easy credit, the acquisition of status symbols and the diversions of the entertainment industry. Why worry about inner-city shootouts, the war on Iraq or the Home Secretary’s assault on civil liberties when we can immerse ourselves in the tacky glamour of Sarah Jessica Parker; the sexual shenanigans of Sven and Becks (in separate bedrooms); and the latest exhibitionist antics in the Big Brother House?
David Peace is one of those rare writers who can peel away layers of illusion and apply a forensic gaze to the rotting corpse of the British body politic. His work is an antidote to the complacency and cruelty that have led us here: by re-sensitising us to the horrors of the culture, he offers the slim possibility of the dream of something better. If we’re to clamber out of the abyss we need to be aware that we’re actually in it.
At the end of GB84, Martin, a flying picket, gets to the heart of the matter in a feverish stream of visionary consciousness:
“Lord, please open the eyes and ears of the people of England. But the people of England are blind and deaf […] Here where she stands at the gates at the head of her tribe and waits – Triumphant on the mountains of our skulls. Up to her hems in the rivers of our blood […] and she looks down at the long march of labour halted here before her and says, Awake! Awake! This is England, Your England – and the year is Zero.”
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