September 13, 2005

A world of dread and fear

GB84 2 (Peace).JPG

'You couldn't sleep. You had to work.

Always light.

Head against the window, sun coming up -

The troops were gathering on the street below him. The Red Guard in good voice:


The dawn chorus of the Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire.

Another cup of coffee. Another aspirin - ' (7)

David Peace's GB84 is typed in prose as stark and unforgiving as motorway service station strip-lights.

The harsh expressionist realism Peace honed over the course of the four books of the Red Riding Quartet is perfect for handling GB84's subject matter, the events of the 1984-85 Miners' Strike. The Quartet counted forward - 1974 --- 1977 --- 1980 ---- 1983 --- as if it is was approaching but would never reach the fateful date that will provide the title of GB84. From here we count backwards; GB84 'is actually the last of an inverse post-war trilogy which will include UKDK, a novel about the plot to overthrow Wilson and the subsequent rise of Thatcher and another book, possibly about the Atlee Govt.' From Gothic Crime to Political Gothic...

The fiercely partisan novel ends with the incantation: 'the Year is Zero'. But 1985, when both the Strike and the book end, was very far from being a year of beginning or of possibilities for the novel's 'us', (in fact, the very existence of that 'us', the collective proletarian subject, is itself in question by then. At the same time, however, this is the first of Peace's novels in which the possibility of any sort of group-subject is raised. More typically, his characters are solipsistically alone, connected only by violence, their only shared project dissimulation). On the contrary, it was a year of catastrophic defeat, the scale of which would not become apparent for a decade or more. (Perhaps it was only the election of New Labour twelve years later that the defeat was both registered and finally secured.)


We now know - although this cannot enter into the present tension of the novel - that the strike was about a failed Proletarianization. After the events the novel describes, what awaited was fragmentation, new opportunities for the few, unemployment and underemployment for the majority. The technique of flying picketing that Scargill had pioneered so successfully in the late sixties and early seventies (and which had contributed to the humiliation and collapse of the Heath government) was combatted by a comprehensive range of strategies (including a highly-organized counter-subversion operation run by MI5) that were designed while the Tories were still in opposition. The aim was to fragment miners' solidarity and to prevent support from sympathetic workers in other industries. In this, the creation of the Working Miners Committee and the Union of Democratic Mineworkers would prove crucial. The deterritorialization of capital - its transmutation into 'messages which pass instantaneously from one nodal point to another across the former globe, the former material world' (Jameson) - was not to be met by a complementary deterritorialization of labour. Miners were inveigled into identifying with their own terrirory rather than with the industry as a whole; hence the return to work of the Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire miners, who believed that they were safeguarding their future but in a satisfying irony found themselves no better off than miners from any other coalfield. Within a decade, the industry would be all but closed down in Britain, with members of the UDM no more likely to be in employment than those of the NUM.

Yes, we know all this, now. But Peace restores drama by excluding any of the knowledge hindsights brings. The events come at you as if they were happening for the first time, and without the emollient shield of an omniscient authorial voice. As Joseph Brooker identifies in a lengthy piece on GB84 in the current issue of Radical Philosophy, the novel is bereft of any mediating meta-language. The tragic quality the novel possesses even in its earliest scenes comes courtesy of the knowledge we, the readers, bring - but which is, naturally, is denied to the protagonists - of the eventual course that the strike will take.


Counterfactuals are largely the preserve of the reactionary Right, and Peace refuses the temptation to change the facts. He writes his retro-speculative fiction in the spaces between the recorded facts, extrapolating, inferring, guessing. Yet the question the reader cannot help but pose is: what would have happened if the miners had won? (A question that has added piquancy since subsequent revelations have shown that the government was much closer to defeat than was ever suspected at the time.) The narrative in which the Strike is now embedded - the only narrative in town, the story of Global Capital - has it that it was part of a receding ebb tide of organized working class insurgency. Defeat was Inevitable, written into the Historical passage from Fordism to post-Fordism. The hard Left are outflanked, fighting under the banner of the Past for 'the history of the Miner. The tradition of the Miner. The legacies of their fathers and their fathers' fathers -' (7)

But such a narrativization is question-begging, since the very credibility of this story relies upon the events of the Strike unfolding as they did. What if they hadn't? Under the aspect of eternity, everything is inevitable and we are all Spinozists. But life has to be lived 'forward', making us Sartreans. Reading the book now inevitably dramatizes the tension between these two positions, between knowing that everything has already happened and acting as if it hasn't.

A gang of doppelgangers, near-duplicates, haunt the pages of GB84, this 'fiction based upon a fact'. Peace writes an occulted history of the present by constructing a simulation of the near-past. The dramatis personae do not bear the names of their real-life counterparts, and sometimes don't have names at all, merely titles designating their stuctural role: The President, The Chairman, The Minister. Sometimes, real world names are slightly altered; in GB84 the NUM's Chief Executive Roger Windsor becomes the hapless Terry Winters. The relationship of these simulations to their real-life counterparts is complex. The President is not Scargill. But he's not not Scargill. No doubt Peace changed the names in part to avoid legal action, but in an odd way the extra imaginative latitude he is granted by not being compelled into fidelity to actual biography gives the characters more reality. He is able to get inside their heads in a way that would not be possible with actual biographical individuals.


The most controversial characterization is that of Stephen Sweet, the professional strikebreaker based on Thatcher's right hand man throughout the Strike, David Hart. Hart was the driving force behind the creation of the Working Miners' Committee and the UDM. In the novel, Sweet is seen planning the crucial battle between police and pickets at the coking plant, Orgreave. (Devoting all its resources to Orgreave is now regarded as a major strategic error by the NUM.) Sweet is referred to throughout the novel as 'The Jew'. Although this designation remains uncomfortable - as it is intended to be, Peace has said - suspicions of anti-semitism are immediately rebutted by any sort of close reading of the novel. Everything we see of Sweet is focalized through his chauffeur-factotum, Neil Fontaine. (This distancing is significant, since Sweet's pomposity and grandiosity strike a slightly unconvincing note. It is almost as if Peace is unable to find the sympathy necessary for a convincing characterisation. On the other hand, perhaps Hart was the faintly absurd figure that Peace paints his fictional counterpart as. Peace does not make the mistake of portraying Sweet as a self-consciously evil figure; on the contrary, Sweet sees his efforts in a messianic light.)

Fontaine, presumably a co-opted member of the working class who has worked for the security services, is a blank slate of a figure, a man reduced to function (he is doubled in the novel by David Johnson, The Mechanic, who becomes an antagonist but who was clearly an ally in the past). It is Fontaine, a man with Right-wing affiliations and connections but few passions, who will never stop seeing Sweet as 'The Jew'. That description foreground the provisional nature of the political alliance that Thatcher built: somehow, the Thatcher programme allowed fascists to consort with Jews, nationalists to find common cause with the agents of Multinational capitalism.

Fontaine is also the connecting link between the overt and the covert counter-'subversion' operations undertaken by the State in GB84. It is in the unraveling of the MI5's role in proceedings that leads Peace into the territory of endemic corruption and betrayal that he staked out so viscerally in the Red Riding Quartet. Unusually for Peace, so skilled at putting himself (and therefore us) into the shoes of irredeemably corrupt power puppets, there is no major character in GB84 who is a policeman. But there are State functionaries: Fontaine, Johnson, but, most vividly, Malcolm Morris, a man whose role is to be a shadow, a cipher, an expert phone-tapper who, in a Francis Baconoid delirium, fancies that his ears are always bleeding...

In GB84, MI5 are the key players in organizing Terry Winters' spectacularly ill-judged trip to Libya. Who can forget the television images of Roger Windsor kissing Gadaffi in his tent? Winters/ Windsor's Libyan visit - only a few months after the policewoman Yvonne Fletcher had been killed by Libyan agents - proved an important, perhaps decisive, PR defeat for the NUM. (The actual role of Libya in the Strike was somewhat different: the Thatcher government had illicitly increased oil imports from the supposedly outlawed regime so as to see off the threat of power cuts.) Peace deliberately leaves the degree of Windsor/ Winters' collusion with the security services unclear. He wanted the novel to be a 'mess', like the Strike itself.

The doubling of historical fact with Peace's version of it is internal to the novel's own structure, whose main fictional thread is cut through by a diary account of the Strike by two miners, Martin and Peter. Martin and Peter's accounts, rendered in the Yorkshire dialect Peace captures so ably, were 'not fictionalized', Peace has said. It is here that Scargill, Macgregor, Thatcher, McGahey and Heathfield appear in their own names. The first person accounts register the grim miseries of the Strike, as well as its comaraderie, forming a contrast with the skullduggery, the corruption and the high-level meetings of the novel's central narrative.

Peace says that he first puts himself into the past, and then imagines. It's like Method writing, or time travel. Peace has tried and tested tricks to get back. He uses jaundiced newsprint, books but most of all Pop - not the stuff he would have listened to himself, then, and has listened to ever since but the songs that, ubiquitous then, forgotten now, can function as audio-madeleines. Digging through the carboot sale detritus of 84 and 85 Pop, Peace finds a coded history of the Strike secreted beneath the dull sheen of thrownaway post-New Pop.GB84 begins with Nena's execrable '99 Red Balloons', which here becomes an apocalyptic carnival tune, bursting with all the hopes that will sag and bleed by the end of the novel's gruelling, long, long march. 'Two Tribes' soundtracks the next phase, the confrontation between police and miner (both this and the Nena song, of course, played upon Cold War anxieties when they were released. Another reminder, and there are many in this novel, that 1984 was a world away). The exhilaration and adrenalin of out and out confrontation, Us and Them, gives way to suspicion (who is with us, and who is against us?) 'Two Tribes - Must have heard that bloody song ten times a day now for weeks. Ought to make it National Anthem, said Sean.' (176) The songs that Peaces dredges up for the final phase of the Strike are 'Careless Whisper' ('guilty feet have got no rhythm') and, for the 84-85 winter that was cold, but not cold enough - the power cuts never come - Band Aid's 'Do They Know It's Christmas'. Characters speculate that Band Aid is a government-backed scheme to distract from the plight of the miners, and the line that Peace selects for sampling is, naturally, 'There's a world outside your window, and it's a world of dread and fear'.


Sampling is precisely the right term, since Pop, much more than literature, film or TV (Peace actively distrusts these latter two) provides Peace with a methodology for drilling his words into the repetitions and refrains that are his stock-in-trade. Repetition is a hallmark of Peace's style; he has famously remarked that the strike was intensely repetitive and that the prose whould reflect that. But in all of Peace's writing, repetition is what substitutes for both plot and character. His Crime novels make no attempt to interest readers in the intrigue and enigma of plots; the plot of GB84, meanwhile, is given in advance, a kind of readymade. And one strange quality of Peace's writing that is not immediately evident is that, although it is unusually intimate - reading his novels is always like rifling through someone else's most secret places - his characters lack what is usually called 'inner life'. They are identified less by a reflexive vitality than by death-drive repetitions, riffs, echoes, habit-forms.

In GB84 the result is more poetic than most poetry; it is, naturally, a poetry stripped of all lyricism, a harshly dissonant word-music. Peace is a writer particulary attentive to sound: the unsleeping vigilance of State power is signified by the 'Click, Click' of the telephone tap , the massed ranks of the police by the Krk, Krk of boots and truncheons beaten against shields, both sounds repeated so much that they become background noise, part of the ambience of paranoia. The Telegraph review was right to observe that, 'At times, the novel feels like an eardrum buzz, the literary equivalent of late-1970s Northern bands such as Throbbing Gristle and Cabaret Voltaire.' It resembles even more closely the two great post-punk responses to the Strike: Mark Stewart's As the Veneer of Democracy Starts to Fade (Keith Leblanc also produced the single 'The Enemy Within') and Test Department's The Unacceptable Face of Freedom. Perhaps for this reason, Post-punk recedes as an explicit reference in GB84. It had been present in Nineteen Eighty Three in titles of sections of the novel: 'Miss the Girl' (The Creatures) and 'There are No Spectators' (The Pop Group). The tone for GB84 is in every sense set by the title of the last section of Nineteen Eighty Three: 'Total Eclipse of the Heart'.

Part of the reason that 1985 seemed like the worst year for Pop ever was that it was the beginning of the Restoration. Up to 1984, British popular and political culture was still a battleground. 1985 was the year of Live Aid, the beginning of a time of the fake consensus that is the cultural expression of Global Capital. If Live Aid was the non-event that happened, the Strike was the Event that didn't.

'Swords and shields. Sticks and stones. Horses and dogs. Blood and bones -

The armies of the dead awoken, arisen for one last battle.

The windscreen of the Granada lit by a massive explosion -

The road. The hedges. The trees -

Fire illuminating the night. The fog now smoke. Blue lights and red -

Terry shook Bill's arm. Shook it and shook it. Bill opened his eyes -

'Where are we?' shouted Terry. 'Where is this place?'

'The start and the end of it all,' said Bill. 'Brampton Bierlow. Cortonwood.'

'But what's going on?' screamed Terry Winters. 'What's happening? What is it?'

'It's the end of the world,' laughed Bill Reed. 'The end of all our worlds.' ' (320)

Posted by mark at September 13, 2005 09:11 PM | TrackBack