Political Gothic

Andy Beckett

  • GB84 by David Peace
    Faber, 465 pp, £12.99, March 2004, ISBN 0 571 21445 2

David Peace’s first novel, Nineteen Seventy Four (1999), was set in West Yorkshire in the year of its title, and presented that time and place in apocalyptic terms. ‘These are violent bloody times, son,’ a senior policeman tells the narrator, a gauche young journalist investigating the disappearance of a series of girls. As the narrator speeds round Leeds’s grey ring of motorways, in ceaseless midwinter rain and darkness, he comes across burning gypsy caravans, corrupt property developers, paedophiles, and a police force that beats and kidnaps and burgles with the impunity of a private army. The violence and complete absence of reassuring characters recall Get Carter and O Lucky Man!, those bleak films from the early 1970s portraying a Britain barely bothering to conceal its Darwinian side. Yet Peace’s vision has a doominess all of its own. Everything and everyone is connected. Paranoia tinges the tiniest occurrences. Even the cups of tea the narrator is offered in the neat front rooms of his interviewees are given a sense of menace: ‘Out in the kitchen the kettle began to scream and then abruptly went dead.’ There are passages of biblical foreboding involving rats, dead dogs and swans with their wings torn off, and strange ambitious images: the sky near Leeds is like ‘the fat belly of a whale … the colour of its grey flesh, stark black trees its mighty bones’.

Peace’s writing is a quickly acquired taste. Paragraphs often last for only one or two short sentences, sentences lack verbs, the dialogue is blunt even for a crime novel with a mostly male cast set in West Yorkshire. Apart from the biblical sections, the style is so pared down you could almost be reading the notes for a novel rather than the novel itself – except that everything is too choreographed and rhythmic and alive with momentum. As well as this sharpening of the crime writer’s traditional virtues, there is a delicacy here, less common to the genre, with character and gesture and small shifts of power between people. At the police press conference about the first of the missing girls, the narrator notes:

The mother and the father . . . him flicking at the dandruff on his collar, her fiddling with her wedding ring, both twitching at the bang and wail of a microphone being switched on, looking for all the world more the sinners than the sinned against.

Me thinking, did you do your own daughter?

Beyond the pervasive sense of rottenness – all of Peace’s books carry a distaste that suggests a moralist at work – specific references to the politics of the early 1970s are sparse but carefully and suggestively deployed. Campaign posters from one of 1974’s two brittle, provisional-feeling general elections are glimpsed on a wall, already disintegrating. Keith Joseph’s notorious speech from that year suggesting that the poor should have fewer children is mentioned in passing. The narrator finds unused candles bought for the three-day week’s power cuts as he gropes around the kitchen of a dead man’s bungalow.

The broader political themes developed in Nineteen Seventy Four that live on in and give shape to Peace’s subsequent novels are more particular to him. There is the notion of the police as a law unto themselves, which is taken to its logical conclusion in GB84’s retelling of the 1984-85 miners’ strike. There is the idea that conventional accounts of British politics in the 1970s and 1980s miss the real story: ‘The only thing new in this world is the history you don’t know,’ Peace quotes Harry Truman on the title page of Nineteen Seventy Four. And there is the idea that Yorkshire is an English Sicily or Deep South: the most primal, brutal, prejudiced and, in a sense, politically honest place in the country, the place where the battles that matter are played out.

Peace published three more novels in the years between Nineteen Seventy Four and GB84, all of them set in West Yorkshire, all of them named after a single year – Nineteen Seventy Seven, Nineteen Eighty, Nineteen Eighty Three – and each one slightly longer and more feverish than the last. There are developments in his style and preoccupations. Nineteen Seventy Seven is written partly from the point of view of a policeman, a little more moral than the rest, involved in the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper but finding a whole ecosystem of brutality instead. Nineteen Eighty moves forward in jolting fragments rather than the usual relentless single storyline, the plot a dizzying war between different police factions. Nineteen Eighty Three – so full of visions and italicised excursions into abstraction that it is more like a prose poem than a novel – is about a rent boy taking revenge on his manipulators in the Leeds establishment.

For all the exhilarating invention in these three books, however, there is also the sense of an author painting himself into a corner. Police beating follows police beating; ominous meeting follows ominous meeting; there are abrupt revelations and sinister locations and all the other tics of crime fiction. Yet the efforts Peace makes to escape the genre are less successful than in his first novel. The non-fiction material he includes, in particular the lengthy Yorkshire Ripper sections of Nineteen Seventy Seven and Nineteen Eighty, does not quite knit together with the wild fictions he weaves around it. Placed next to actual horrors, Peace’s made-up ones suddenly feel inappropriate and slightly cartoonish. When Nineteen Eighty Three climaxes with references to swastikas and the devil, the carefully calibrated menace of his earlier writing appears to have been abandoned for something more lurid. Meanwhile, his sense of the workings of British politics and society in the 1980s seems stuck in the mid-1970s: the same corruption, the same griminess, Thatcherism still little more than a rumour, at least in West Yorkshire.

But near the end of Nineteen Eighty Three there is a small sign that things are going to change. One of Peace’s characters is screaming down the motorway towards another moment of reckoning, just before the general election of that year, when he hears on the car radio:

‘Do not let us fall into the trap . . . of voting for a schoolyard bully . . . or we will deserve to live on our knees,’ Mr Scargill warned yesterday . . . ‘People will have to stand and fight . . . sooner or later.’

In GB84, Peace acquires a similar clarity of purpose. After all the political hints and subplots and scene-setting textures of his earlier books, politics is now his explicit subject. ‘GB84 is a fiction based on a fact,’ Peace is quoted as saying, with Scargill-style certainty and crispness, in the press release accompanying the book. ‘The occult history of that strike – of that country at that time, the places and the people. No romanticism. No nostalgia. No revisionism. No apologies. It is Great Britain, 1984.’ Whether an ‘occult history’, with all the authorial speculation that implies, can also be a definitive, wholly realistic account is a question GB84 never quite answers. But the book is so compelling that it takes you hundreds of pages to notice. Peace’s terse, urgent sentences are perfectly suited to depicting a large-scale confrontation. The tactics and resources of both sides, their histories, their mindsets, the likely battlefields – all are vividly laid out in little more than a few paragraphs. Alliteration and repetition establish a marching rhythm like massing pickets or policemen:

The president had come . . . to collect what was his –
From the steel men. The lorry drivers. The railwaymen. The seamen –
The promise and the pledge to cease all movement of coal –
By road. By rail. By sea –
To cut off the power stations. To shut down the steel works –
The whole country.

Against Scargill and the miners are ranged all the bogeymen of Peace’s previous novels – criminals, right-wing businessmen and politicians, the police and stealthier operators with military and secret service connections – but organised now in a government-backed coalition. The beatings and burglaries and secret payments that were once illicit, or at least not officially acknowledged, are now everyday instruments of state policy. Disused airfields are reopened as police barracks. Mining villages are ringed with officers, police roadblocks established, non-police movements restricted. Peace presents Yorkshire during the strike as occupied territory, a police state.

The dispute also enables him to make paranoia and factionalism the state of mind of everyday life. Striking miners watch each other for the smallest symptoms of a desire to return to work. Villages are full of curtains twitching at the sight of anyone with a few unexplained pounds to spend. On the government side, even the best-connected jostle constantly for Thatcher’s endorsement of their competing strike-breaking strategies. And deepest in the plot’s shadows, Peace places a retired general in a remote Scottish castle, plainly based on the late Sir Walter Walker, the half-absurd, half-credible focus for hopes and fears of a British military coup in the mid-1970s, who is growing impatient with what he sees as Thatcher’s lack of decisiveness.

Throughout, there is an intriguing tension between the book’s desire, approaching that of a Thomas Pynchon novel, to set wheels turning within wheels, to present a political world of infinite complexity and, ultimately, chaos, and its desire for order, both organisational and moral. Peace loves describing meetings. He lingers over the rituals of the failing negotiations between the union and the government, the overlit rooms and bad coffee – the fatalistic cups of tea of his previous books replaced by something more jittery – and the pulling of levers in the strike and strike-breaking machines. One consequence of this is that his account of the dispute seems at times to accept its traditional explanation as the fault of two voracious and unyielding politicians. ‘The president and the prime minister’, a union official muses as another possible settlement collapses: ‘Insatiable . . . The pair of them.’ Thatcher looms off-stage, receiving fearful subordinates at Chequers, where ‘peacocks scream’ like the kettle did in Nineteen Seventy Four. Perhaps decades of caricature – and the cartoon Thatcher has seemed willingly to become since losing office – have made novelists wary of portraying her directly. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, the other ambitious recent novel about British politics in the mid-1980s, which is a suggestive counterpoint to GB84, with its scenes in triumphant Tory drawing-rooms and sense that the coalfields may as well be on Mars, also prefers to put Thatcher inside characters’ heads instead of on the page (except for one brief appearance). In both books, her power at its bullying peak is well conveyed.

In GB84, at least at first, Scargill is not a much more appealing presence. ‘The president’, as he is always referred to, speaks only in grandiose rhetorical sentences, even at one-on-one meetings with colleagues. He is unable to listen, or to adjust his worldview; at times Peace, with his ear for dialogue, makes Scargill seem comic. Only as the strike nears defeat does his obstinacy acquire a more human, faintly heroic quality. Even then, the book’s sympathies are more with his foot-soldiers. Its strongest and most emotional passages describe the experiences of half a dozen striking miners. These give the impression of having been intricately researched, but are written with such sympathy and intensity that they go beyond both conventional historical accounts and Peace’s trademark political gothic:

Day 57. Feels different now . . . Scabs just walking in . . . Police charging us . . . Men run – Scatter. Out of breath. This way and that. I follow Pete over a fence. Through a hedge. Onto cricket pitch. Police on our heels. Across pitch. Some lads hiding in pavilion. Police steam straight in. Haul them out. One lad on floor. Six of them and one of him . . . Pete picks up one of deckchairs. I do same. Pete charges coppers. I do same. Pete’s chair breaks over one copper’s back. I throw mine. They turn on us – We run . . . Day 63. No fucking end in sight. Folk have gone through their savings now. Them that had any. Holidays cancelled. Stuff taken back to shops – Nothing from social. Nothing from union – Lot of muttering.

The book also brings alive the other side of being on strike. There are lulls as well as battles. Miners sunbathe when they are not on picket duty, take up hobbies, spend weekdays with their families (happily or otherwise) rather than sweating underground. Peace does not idealise the working life that the strike has been called to preserve. And he doesn’t pretend that the dispute is always clear-cut. For every retired miner who remembers the equally legendary and beleaguered coal strike of 1926 and still divides his pensioner neighbours between ‘who’d scabbed and who’d stayed out’, there is someone in the same village thinking of returning to work during the 1984-85 dispute because they are tired of the tribalism it brings.

The attritional, repetitive routine of the strike is draining just to read about. Peace’s explanation for the miners’ defeat is again quite traditional: tactical errors by the union; the semi-secret government funding of the return to work by anti-Scargill miners; and, above all, the armies of police, their perspective on events barely presented here but, with their armoured vans and truncheons, rarely losing a fight. To narrate much of this, Peace uses a senior Scargill subordinate and a Thatcherite businessman and freelance activist, both closely resembling well-known participants in the strike, and both given enough flaws and vulnerabilities to retain a certain distance from events. But if you know the basic story of the strike, you know where these two chancers are heading. A whirl of subplots is left to generate dramatic tension for the last two hundred pages. These stories, involving blackmail and sexual violence and characters switching smoothly between state-sanctioned activities and straightforward criminality, have a black energy but rework themes familiar from Peace’s previous books. Only one of these seems worth developing further. Peace’s protagonists, from the seediest to the straightest, are always ill: recovering from beatings, making themselves sick with nerves, not eating, not sleeping. A number of them commit suicide, usually at the story’s climax. It’s as if the corruption that Peace sees everywhere has found its way into their bodies; as if taking part in, or even just probing, British political life as these books define it – competitive, obsessive, claustrophobically male – always destroys people in the end.

But Peace and his characters can’t stop themselves getting drawn in. GB84 ends with a contradictory mixture of political pessimism and resolve. ‘The left achieved nothing,’ the book concludes after the last, futile strike-meeting of the most left-wing group of officials from the NUM. ‘Nothing. Ever.’ Peace’s view of the balance of political forces in Britain can be gauged from the fact that, among the great crowd of participants in GB84 and his other novels, there is not a single effective left-winger, except perhaps Scargill and a few of his foot-soldiers during the strike’s early phases. Yet the force of the picketing miners’ experiences – the way the strike’s rhythms and shared moments of crisis and triumph alter people and fill their memories – shows the power of such revolts both at the time and afterwards. Peace’s final sentences suggest that such confrontations will come again.

In some ways, this is a deeply romantic depiction of the events of March 1984 to March 1985. There is almost nothing about the build-up to the strike. There is almost nothing about what followed. There is simply the strike itself: an enormous metaphor for the way Britain works, floating surprisingly free of historical context for a novelist with such a command of political reference. Perhaps the book has to be like this, to justify its scale and partisan perspective. Once you start thinking about the equally dramatic but successful miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, and about the way British politics began to shift against the left later that decade, and about the way the Falklands War of 1982 and the general election of 1983 made that shift close to permanent, the strike of 1984-85 starts to seem less like a decisive political battle and more like a rearguard action. And seeing politics in terms of such confrontations has its limits, anyway. Thatcher’s ascendancy was secured in the shopping centres of the South of England as well as the pit villages of South Yorkshire. But when you are reading GB84, and thinking about it, you see events and their causes entirely Peace’s way. Only a rare political novel manages that.