What does the left want from its artists? To be told what we already know? To have our sense of mission confirmed, to be reassured that our struggles will be vindicated? Or to have our assumptions and emotional habits challenged and our perceptions altered? Do we want emollient echo chambers or free human voices, with all their uncertainties and discomfiting surprises?
In his ferocious and ambitious novel, ‘GB84’, David Peace (Yorkshire bred, now living in Japan) offers us the latter. The techniques and themes of his ‘Red Riding’ quartet, which dealt with the Yorkshire Ripper, are here applied to a larger and more explicitly political canvas – the miners’ strike of 1984-85. ‘As I researched and wrote, I just felt guiltier and guiltier and angrier and angrier,’ he says. ‘Anger at myself for not doing enough. For not understanding what it was really all about.’
During the strike, Peace was doing his A levels in Wakefield.’ Because of where I was born and the way I was brought up there was no way I was not going to support the miners. I was in a band and we played benefit gigs and I wore my Coal Not Dole yellow sticker. It was just part of the ‘Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out’ culture that I was involved in. I don’t think I really understood or appreciated the enormity of what was happening and the consequences of a defeat.’
On one level, GB84 is a historically precise, week-by-week account of the strike. But it is also a conspiracy thriller laced with apocalyptic poetry. Its power lies in its mixture of documentary realism and enigmatic fantasy, its exploration of the intimate betrayals which make up an epic social tragedy.
‘My background is in crime writing and I do strongly believe that the crime novel is a place to make social comments,’ says Peace. ‘Crimes take place in society, not in a vacuum.’ He notes that the miners and their union were criminalised by the government and, more importantly, that they were themselves the victims of a criminal conspiracy, one involving the government, media, security services and others. The main body of Peace’s novel recreates this multi-faceted conspiracy and the agonies among the union’s leaders as they wriggled in its grip.
In Peace’s words, this is ‘a fiction based on a fact’, an ‘occult history’. Though the characters are clearly derived from real actors in the original drama, they exist in a kind of speculative parallel world. The leader of the union is described only as ‘The President’. ‘If I was convinced this really was Arthur Scargill I might have called him that’,says Peace, ‘but he’s not, he’s The President. I’ve not met the man. My impressions of him were formed through the media.’
Similarly, Roger Windsor, the NUM chief executive during the strike, is re-invented as the aspirin-popping, nail-chewing, blundering Terry Winters. His schemes to protect the union’s assets persistently unravel. His every move seems to expose the union to more peril. Is he a spy? Is he a fool? Is he manipulator or manipulated?’ I wanted to leave it open and unresolved,’ says Peace.’ I don’t think there are any neat tie ups. I wanted to leave the story in the mess it was in at the end of the strike. It’s dangerous to write with too much hindsight.’
The book goes out of its way to shock, but its most controversial feature is likely to be Peace’s handling of a character derived from David Hart, the right-wing millionaire who advised Thatcher and the Coal Board and was instrumental in organising (and funding) the anti-strike, ‘back to work’ campaign in the coalfields. Hart is transmuted here into the compellingly creepy Stephen Sweet, whose vanities and obsessions are rendered with marvellous detail – but who is referred to throughout the book as ‘the Jew’. The relevance of the old racist stereotype is disconcertingly obvious: Sweet is the manipulative millionaire, the backstage go-between, the outsider who has wheedled his way into the corridors of power.
‘Obviously this phrase caused some worries to my agent and my editor’,
Peace says. It’s also obvious that he himself is concerned about the reaction, while remaining committed to the choice of language. Sweet is seen though the eyes of his chauffeur and bag-man, Neil Fontaine, a disturbed and disturbing figure from the murkier reaches of the security services. ‘I don’t want to hide behind an authorial cop-out but this is solely from Neil’s point of view and given his background that’s how he’d see Sweet. It was suggested I should use an overtly racist epithet but to me that lost some of the ambiguity. Every time you come across Neil’s use of the word, it’s uneasy, and I wanted to create that uneasiness. I didn’t think anything else I tried had that unsettling effect. As both a literary and political device I feel it’s right.
‘The Sweet character and the device used to describe him arise in part from Peace’s interest in the the ‘peculiar and troubled alliances’ that propelled Thatcher to power. ‘One of the interesting things about Thatcher is how much she admired what she perceived as Jewish culture, a culture that in her view encouraged people who were born with nothing to raise themselves up. She surrounded herself with people who were Jewish but at the same time many others around her took a different view of Jews.’ Sweet’s own experience of anti-semitism at Eton as well as the anti-semitic bigotry of the extreme right are referred to briefly in the book. That may not assuage some critics but there’s no denying the seriousness of the author’s aim, or his commitment to the humanity of even his most grotesque characters. Like Terry Winters, Sweet in the end seems as much manipulated as manipulator.
Interwoven with the stories of Winters and Sweet are the disconnected, often violent narratives of a clutch of shadowy, unsavoury figures connected with the security services. ‘This thread is the least successful in the novel, but it serves an essential purpose. These were the kind of people the government used to break the lives of ordinary people in the coalfields,’ Peace notes.’ I wanted to show that reality.’ What’s more, their twisted souls, mired in blood and guilt, serve as metaphors for the country as a whole. ‘I do a tremendous amount of research,’ explains Peace, b’ut I also do a tremendous amount of imagining.’
GB84 presents history as it’s lived – fragmentary, inconclusive, an accumulation of details, hunches, missed signposts. The experimentalism of Peace’s prose is no dry technical exercise. It’s a passionate effort to imagine himself into an unfolding present, that unstable compound of the things’ I know, the things I don’t’, as Neil Fontaine puts it at the end of the book.
Peace anchors this main narrative – with its ellipses and ambiguities – to a concrete, day-by-day chronicle of the strike seen through the eyes and told in the language of two Yorkshire miners. Each chapter begins with a solid block of unbroken prose in which their experiences are recreated with blunt immediacy. ‘The miners’ narratives are not fictionalised,’ says Peace. ‘They are actually the truth.’ And that truth is one of police violence, state harassment, mounting debt, repeated betrayals, indignation, despair and pride. Here we see the brutal impact on real lives of the sometimes hallucinatory goings-on in the rest of the novel.
For all its horror, the book is infused with a sense of the dignity of the strike and the strikers. ‘I hadn’t appreciated the degree of sacrifice and selflessness,’ comments Peace. ‘Miners from good pits who were making money lost a year’s work to support miners in threatened pits, people they didn’t know and would probably never meet. I look around now and I look at myself and I wonder would anyone sacrifice themselves for other people’s jobs. This was the heritage that trade unionism gave people.’
Unlike other treatments of the strike, Peace’s novel offers little in the way of redemption. ‘Obviously I’m left wing but I didn’t want to write the kind of worthy social documentary fiction that you sometimes get from the left. Of course there were positive things that happened in the strike that are missing from the book, like the role of the women’s support groups. But much of that has already been well-documented. I’m a bit wary of a kind of socialist revisionism about the strike. I accept that people gained a certain degree of political awareness in relation to issues of race and sexuality, and personally, as a teenager in a band, we were given the opportunity to make fanzines and do gigs, which was great. But as Brecht said, you can’t build on the good old days, you have to build on the bad new days.
‘The strike ended with the defeat of organised labour and the defeat of socialism. It was a victory for Thatcher’s idea that there is no society. Now it’s carte blanche, full on privatisation, deregulation, trickle down. Much as I admire Billy Elliot and anything that makes people aware of the strike, at the end of the day I’m not satisfied with nostalgia. I didn’t want the book to offer a sense of redemption because as a country we haven’t got it. And we don’t deserve it.’