David Peace: State of the union rights

Peace has created an apocalyptic thriller that's a fictional monument to the miners' strike. He talks to Mike Marqusee about fact, fantasy and defeat
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The Independent Culture

"As I researched and wrote, I just felt guiltier and guiltier and angrier and angrier. Anger at myself for not doing enough. For not understanding what it was really all about." During the miners' strike of 1984-5, David 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. But I don't think I really understood or appreciated the enormity of what was happening and the consequences of a defeat."

Twenty years on, Peace has created a fictional monument to that defeat, one in which the tumult, fear and outrage of the year-long strike are embodied without compromise or sentimentalism. GB84 (Faber, £12.99) shares the techniques and themes introduced in Peace's highly praised quartet about the Yorkshire Ripper, but develops them on a larger political canvas. He cites John Dos Passos's USA trilogy as a precedent for the new book, a multi-voiced narrative charting a moment in a nation's history. And on one level, GB84 works as 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 that constitute 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." According to Peace, what makes the 1984-5 strike particularly susceptible to this treatment is, firstly, that the miners and their union were criminalised by the government and, more importantly, that they were themselves victims of something like a criminal conspiracy, involving the government, the security services and others. The main body of Peace's novel re-creates that multi-faceted conspiracy and the agonies within the miners' union as it wriggled in its grip.

In Peace's words, the book is "a fiction based on a fact", an "occult history". Though its characters are clearly derived from real actors in the original drama, they exist in a kind of speculative parallel world that goes off at a tangent to the real one. The leader of the union is described only as "the President". "If I had been convinced this really was Arthur Scargill, I might have called him that," Peace says, "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 reinvented 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," Peace says. "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 real strike. It's dangerous to write with too much hindsight."

The book goes out of its way to challenge and 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 Margaret 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, that 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 entirely though the eyes of his chauffeur and bag-man, Neil Fontaine, who is also enmeshed in the murkier end of the security services. "I don't want to hide behind an authorial cop-out, but this is solely through Neil's eyes, and, given his background, that's how he would see Sweet. It was suggested that 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. I feel that, both as a literary and a political device, it's right."

The Sweet character and the device used to describe him arise in part from Peace's interest in "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." In the book, Sweet experiences anti-Semitism at Eton, and the anti-Semitic bigotry of the extreme right also features briefly. 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.

Interwoven with the stories of Winters and Sweet are the fragmentary narratives of a clutch of shadowy, unsavoury figures connected with the security services. "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." Beyond the documentary impulse, however, these twisted souls, mired in blood and guilt, also serve as metaphors for the greater betrayal overtaking the country as a whole. "I do a tremendous amount of research," Peace explains, "but I also do a tremendous amount of imagining."

GB84 presents history as it is lived - fragmentary, inconclusive, an accumulation of details, hunches, habits, 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 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 as 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 re-created with blunt immediacy. "The miners' narratives are not fictionalised," Peace says. "They are actually the truth." And that truth is one of police assaults, mounting debt, repeated let-downs, pride and despair.

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 their sacrifice and selflessness," Peace comments. "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, such as the role of the women's support groups. But much of that has already been well documented.

"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 though 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 for something that I certainly wish still existed but doesn't. 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."

Mike Marqusee's most recent book is 'Chimes of Freedom: The Politics of Bob Dylan's Art' (The New Press, £14.95)

Biography: DAVID PEACE

David Peace was born in Ossett, West Yorkshire, in 1967 and grew up in the West Ridings. He attended the former Manchester Polytechnic between 1988 and 1991. After John Major's general election victory in 1992, he left the country, living and working first in Istanbul and then, from 1993, in Tokyo, where he taught English until 2001. His first novel, Nineteen Seventy-Four, was published in 1999, and was followed over the next three years by Nineteen Seventy-Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty-Three (all published by Serpent's Tail). These four books comprise his Red Riding Quartet, set in the West Ridings at the time of the Yorkshire Ripper murders. Peace still lives in Tokyo, with his wife and children. In 2003, he was included in Granta's list of the best young British novelists. While researching GB84, he discovered that several of his forebears had been miners, and that two of his great-great-uncles had been killed in the Thornhill mining disaster of 1947.