GB84 by David Peace
Ding-dong! The witch is dead!
Last year, while the world and parts of Britain were mourning or responding politely to Margaret Thatcher's death, this snippet from the soundtrack of The Wizard of Oz reached number two in the UK singles chart, becoming in the process the shortest song ever to chart in the country. Street parties took place across the country, most strikingly in Brixton, scene of riots in the early 1980s, and de-industrialised areas of the North of England. It was a reminder for the rest of the world that the Iron Lady was hated as much, if not more, than she was loved in her home country (it's worth remembering that she never won a majority of the vote, or anything close to it). It's almost impossible for me to think of another politician, in Britain or the rest of the world, who would provoke such a reaction.
GB14 is very much her creation, though, and an ugly, dispiriting thing it is much of the time. Modern Thatcherite Britain can trace, if not its birth, its formative struggle -- the moment when it became clear it would not just survive but define the '80s -- to 1984, the year of the coal miners' strike, the subject of this pitch-black, strange, cussed, humane, stupid novel by David Peace, GB84. This was a year-long siege, as miners throughout the country (in many locations, but primarily concentrated in South Wales, the North of England, and Central Scotland) fought a number of pit closures, carried out for economic reasons, which they claimed (correctly, as it turned out) would lead to the wholesale destruction of the British coal industry. It was this, along with the very fortunately timed Falklands War, that gave Margaret Thatcher her aura of invincibility, allowed her to assume the status of natural leader, changing her from the least popular prime minister in history, defiantly pursuing a list of unpopular policies, to defiant, naysaying Britannia -- albeit a Britannia whose chariot would get snagged in quite a lot of potholes.
The miners were famously designated "the enemy within" by Thatcher (implicitly compared to the enemy without, equated with Galtieri, the Argentinean dictator who had invaded the Falkland Islands the previous year), and this was the event that firmly marked off the country into winners and losers, beneficiaries and claimants, 1970s people and '80s people, who could be crudely set against one another. Prior to Thatcher, the country was divided and segregated in many ways, but less sweepingly so. This can be seen just by looking at a map showing the political leanings of different areas: up until Thatcher, the big industrial cities of the Midlands and North had Conservative Members of Parliament; since the late '80s, Liverpool, Manchester, Hull, Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle, Nottingham have been Labour ground -- not to mention the whole of Wales and Scotland, which the Conservatives have, in effect, abandoned. It's been matched by Labour's near disappearance in the south of England outside London, and the creation of a polarized, confused country that finds its most newsworthy expression in events like the Scottish referendum.
So GB14 seems the perfect time and setting for a US issue of this novel, which originally stalked into a much more at-ease-with-itself Britain ten years ago. David Peace, its author, grew up in Ossett, a small town between Sheffield and Leeds, in a part of the country pitted with former mining villages, communities whose original point has been removed. He has lived in Tokyo for the entire time he has been a published author, but the majority of his novels deal with the Yorkshire he knew while growing up in the '70s and '80s, especially the dark, blunt city of Leeds, which his fiction circles like a bystander trying and failing to avoid craning their neck to see a crash victim. He's a very odd writer: confrontational, idiosyncratic, frequently going out to offend and succeeding, moral yet cynical and yet not worldly. And despite all this, he has achieved a level of success and mainstream visibility almost unthinkable for a "literary" writer -- as far as I could deduce, the most prominent award he has won to date is GQ UK's Writer of the Year, something which, it's fair to say, Hilary Mantel is not going to be presented with any time soon. A lot of this has to do with his subject matter: he's taken on football (soccer, to you Americans), the UK's de facto national sport, and done so with, for the most part, striking success. The book that remains his best known is The Damned United, his claustrophobic account of the forty-four-day spell of the mercurial, driven, tormented football manager Brian Clough at the helm of Leeds United, then reigning champions of England but reviled as "dirty Leeds" for their defensive, pugilistic style; Clough started by telling them to throw their medals in the bin and win something fairly -- it went downhill from there, as Peace relates in oppressive, panic-attack present tense and nagging second person. His latest novel, Red or Dead, deals with Bill Shankly, the inspirational, absurdly decent manager who in the 1950s and 1960s turned Liverpool FC from an underachieving Second Division to a side who were the default champions of England (and quite frequently of Europe) for the next thirty years, and sensitively addresses the question of what you do once you've achieved everything and don't feel like an encore.
These are the two books that are being issued with GB84 by Melville House, and the title under review now is the toughest proposition of all three. GB84 is an exhausting, dispiriting slog through the strike; a world of charlatans, crooks, fools, and fanatics, where corruption and venality are taken for granted, and the union leaders seem as crazed and self-aggrandising as the neo-liberal ideologues. The mood isn't too different from The Damned United -- most of Peace's characters seem a couple of weeks overdue a nervous breakdown, sleep deprived and paranoid, driven by revenge and shame -- but in this case it's jobs and lives and whole towns at stake, not results or reputations. Hopeless aphorisms echo through it, turning up every now and then like the ace of spades: "always light, never dark"; "love will always let you down." Each side compares the other to the Nazis, exchanges conspiracy theories. This continues for 500 pages in an austere, terse style characterised by juddering short sentences. The following paragraph was taken more or less randomly from the novel:
Malcolm took the weekend off. He drove North. He ate dinner at Da Marios on the Headrow in Leeds. Deepfried garlic mushrooms. Lasagna. A bottle of the house red. He smoked two cigarettes. He finished with coffee. Drove home to Harrogate. He put the car in the garage. He went into the house. Picked up the post. The papers from the mat.
The one-verb sentences have a puttering energy, igniting, then blowing out like a series of cherry bombs, but the gaps also jolt on your nerves, again and again and again, for hundreds of pages. This isn't just affectedness on Peace's part: it is genuinely reminiscent of the dialect speech of Yorkshire, where the majority of the book takes place, and where all of the miners who we get to know well live. Yorkshire speech is an oddly parsimonious, leaden, heavy language, characterised more by absence than presence, suspicious of empty information: its most obviously recognisable feature is the omission of the definite and indefinite articles in most situations. Full stops are heavier in Yorkshire; the accent sounds like it would clang loudly if you dropped it. Peace absolutely nails this accent, as well he might, being a local boy who grew up in the heart of West Yorkshire.
Most of the "action" of the plot takes place in London, where both the politicians and the union leaders spend their time strategizing and panicking. It is both convulsively event filled, as might be expected from two groups in bunker mode, and strikingly dry -- a key event in the plot is the battle to stop a Luxembourg-based bank from freezing union funds. Thatcher appears rarely and is curiously underwhelming when she does. She is far more powerful in her absence, and it's interesting to observe how many on the miners' side never mention her by name, as though fearing to summon a demon. More fully sketched out is Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers, and thus the effective leader of the opposition. He's an intriguing figure -- hyper-articulate and proudly working-class, like both Brian Clough and Bill Shankly, but also, it's implied, a narcissist and a rotten strategist. Peace's version of Scargill is a man with a portrait of himself above his desk, fond of invoking Mao and a little too ready with superlatives -- at one point, quite late on in the strike, he insists, "Your Union is on its way to the greatest victory in history!" But Peace also gets his charisma; you can see why the miners follow him with such conviction for almost a year.
But Peace's greatest achievement is the sections dealing with the miners directly: these take the form of weird unbroken blocks of text that turn up every few pages or so and recount in blunt, unpolished, often dull dialect prose the everyday doings of three ordinary South Yorkshire coal miners, in an unrelenting burst which could be called stream-of-consciousness were it not for the fact that the plodding Yorkshire accent lends itself to stream-of-consciousness about as readily as it does to yodelling. These are slotted in now and then, where they can be fitted between the blustering union meetings and plotting in London. The gulf in status and visibility is made very apparent: the miners' words are cut up, in smaller type; a rare occasion of formal experimentation actually being viscerally moving. They are silenced when the "proper" chapters begin, cut off mid-sentence, to resume a few pages later. They're a wonderful, empathetic act of witnessing, from the perspective of those repeatedly denied a voice.
Peace manages the tough job of wringing raw feeling from a repressed, macho culture, one in which swearing serves as a handy way of telegraphing emotion. He repeatedly succeeds in turning the inarticulacy of many of his characters into something profoundly moving. There's a dreadful pain in the following quote, from one of the striking miners, which is made worse by their inability to truly express it:
Laugh at fucking lot of us, they do. Met. MacGregor. Thatcher. The lot of them. The whole bloody fucking lot of them -- Laughing at us in our little villages with our little pits. Our little accents and our little clothes. Cunts. Bastards.
That repeated, misapplied diminutive has more compressed emotion in it than pages of objective, sympathetic description of the miners' plight would do.
Peace makes very little in the way of concessions to the partially informed, partially interested reader -- to most US readers, and a fair number of British ones, a sentence like, "best news of week was Wednesday beating Forest three-fucking-one. Take that you scabby fucking bastards" would need footnotes; pages could be unpacked out of it ("Wednesday" is "Sheffield Wednesday Football Club," based in the South Yorkshire city that was the unofficial capital of the strike; "Forest" is "Nottingham Forest Football Club," the principal team of Nottinghamshire, the one coal mining county that did not join the strike in large numbers -- sides from Nottinghamshire are to this day abused in the North of England with chants of "scab"). Allusions and unadvertised quotations come in flurries: the last page alone references to Orwell, the Clash, L.S. Lowry, a 1970s novelty hit, the title of a 1969 government act proposing to reduce the power of the trade unions. And those are just the ones I picked up on.
It's a shame that Peace feels the need to stitch a crime subplot to the main body of the novel: it's an uncomfortable and troubling fit. We follow a character called the Mechanic, a mercenary and crook intermittently in the pay of the Thatcher government as an agent provocateur, as he strives to untangle conspiracies and agreements, many of which he is snagged in himself, to free his wife who is being held for some reason; there are severed heads and supermarket hold-ups and dark hints about links to Northern Ireland. I found it tricky to follow this section, and after a while stopped trying, sick of the characters who say things like "miss me, did you?" and "there will be a reckoning." As a thriller, it's too thin and tangential to really grip, but as a piece of evidence for the case against, it doesn't really do its job either; it's clear from the miners' testimony elsewhere that the police are using extreme, illegal tactics. Peace has actually admitted that he included this largely due to a lack of confidence; GB84 was his first novel that could not satisfactorily be filed in the crime section. It is a flaw in the book, not least for being a time-consuming wild goose chase only tangentially related to the main concerns, but more seriously for its wider implications: that we need to justify paying attention to these little people in their little villages by including a dark, seedy story of cops and corruptions somehow connected to their struggles -- I'm sure Peace doesn't intend this, but it's a hard conclusion to avoid, and does result in GB84 implicitly belittling its most admirable aspect.
This is of a piece with a general problem that afflicts GB84, and much of Peace's fiction -- he paints a bleak, utterly convincing world, bravely and unafraid of the ridicule that is likely to result from his single-mindedness, eye for conspiracies, and willingness to inflict boredom in pursuit of how it really felt. After all of this strain and sweat to show reality as it was, he spends much of the rest of the time doodling skulls in the margins and making ghost noises. There are endless, cycling references to stock metaphors for bad things: skulls, candles, animals of ill repute. Not to mention ominous vague lists -- like this one from early on in the book: "The tensions. The suspicions. The machinations. The talk of ballots. The rumours of moles. The whispers of coups. The silence and the fear." Not bad in itself, perhaps, but if I quoted this fifty times in sequence, it would seem a trifle lazy, not to mention overdone. It's hard to believe that everyone is quite this fucked up, this tormented all day and all sleepless night. It means that, for me, what should be a great state-of-the-nation-as-it-once-was novel dips in and out of cartoonishness. (Peace has, incidentally, got into trouble before for his penchant for shading things in darker: the Leeds United defender Johnny Giles successfully sued him over his portrayal as a troublemaker in The Damned United; friends and colleagues of Brian Clough have also pointed out that he was not the hard-drinking figure he is presented as in that novel, at least not until rather later in his career).
Still, while this detracts from GB84 it does not destroy Peace's overall achievement, which is to have painted a contentious historical event from the losing side, picking out the individual stories and incorporating them into the grander narrative. It's a tough slog, though; when you get to the end of it, you do feel not unlike you've just survived a year-long siege yourself. The last pages are, in many ways, the most effective: Peace lists meticulously the little things that, bit by bit, again and again, wear people down and send them back to work, quiet and beaten. These are possibly the most crushing aspects of the whole story, simply by virtue of being so small and undefined: fatigue, boredom, hopelessness. See the following quotation, and its mundane, clichéd tone, its lack of heroism or drama:
There was moaning all over now -- Feeling it had gone on too long. People wanted to get back to normal -- Pensioners. Shopkeepers. Local businesses -- Painters and decorators. Builders and garages -- Each one of them had been undercut by miners looking for a bit of cash in hand.
And you, too, realize that you want them to go back; you want to go back to your regular life, to stop having to care, to try. We have also become weary of the strike; its endlessness, its slowly degrading repetition -- the slogans, the solidarity, the privations, the sniping, the selflessness. There's an element of relief when it does all start to go to pieces. Peace himself has admitted, in a BBC interview, that despite being a strong supporter of the striking miners and living at the time one of the most dramatically affected areas, he was bored with it by its end.
While researching this review, I came across a documentary filmed during 1984 by the British TV station Channel Four, at that time fairly new and thought of as vaguely radical. It followed, without comment, a group of miners from South Yorkshire: on protests, at home with their families, picketing a coalfield just down the road in Nottinghamshire. The participants are passionate, sharp, and politically switched-on -- they understand how the coal industry works in Britain and around the world, they have the numbers and a sophisticated understanding of the political pressures being brought to bear, and indeed, almost all of the predictions they made about the ultimate aims to close down the entire coal industry did come to pass. But the Britain which they were fighting for has been lost -- and with it, the stability, pride and dignity of these communities, and perhaps the country as a whole. The Britain they've been rewarded with seems more than ever a kind of shiny mirage: looks good, talks a good game, dresses up at the weekend, but try to grasp it and see what happens. GB84 is, at its best, a court transcript of the case for the prosecution.
GB84 by David Peace