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Written by Stphanie Benson   
Wednesday, 11 February 2009

The Strange Language of David Peace or The Exile from Yorkshire

Stéphanie Benson*

Translation from the French by Jeffrey Tabberner


In quite a short time, David Peace has shown himself to be one of the most inventive writers of his generation, whilst inhabiting a world so dark as to be almost intolerable. Starting from the British writer's fifth novel, GB84, we examine the narrative process put in place by Peace to apprehend an undeniable historic reality — that of the miners' strike in the north of England during 1984 — by the substitution of a place (Yorkshire), for a character, and the deployment of characters, miners or others, as the carriers of language. Does the meeting of styles, from poetic incantation to free indirect speech, bring the reader closer to, or further from the speaker? To what extent is Peace's language 'Yorkshire', the representation of a place? To what extent does the distance necessary for the exile make the writing of an impossibility possible?

GB84 Rivages
GB 84 Rivages
GB84 is the fifth novel by the British writer David Peace. The four earlier ones are collectively entitled The Red Riding Quartet, a pun on the ancient divisions of Yorkshire and the children's story 'Little Red Riding Hood'. The colour red is an obvious allusion to blood and violence, but with the word Riding, it also evokes the image of the innocent who is trapped and eaten by the Big Bad Wolf. The fairy story to end all fairy stories, one could say. And in fact, David Peace invites his reader to look reality in the face, and that reality is far from pretty. In the Yorkshire of 1974 to 1983 the police are corrupt, the public is indifferent, children are tortured, criminals go unpunished, and the politicians are venal. The four books that make up the quartet all carry the names of years; nineteen seventy-four, nineteen seventy-seven, nineteen eighty, and nineteen eighty-three. They trace the lives of four characters in the Yorkshire of those years, years during which the Yorkshire Ripper, the Punk movement and Margaret Thatcher ran wild. Peace shows us a region stuck with its post-industrial identity, and then its slow progression towards liberal Reaganism. Beginning with his first novel, Peace revealed himself as a writer of intimate horror, of characters haunted by visions of Hell within a pitiless society, a sort of return (if he ever left it) to barbarity.


With GB84, the intimate horror and the social barbarity are still there, but this time the destructive policy of the unions makes the headlines, starting with the Yorkshire miners' strike. This is the swan song of the powerful National Union of Mineworkers, the union of Arthur Scargill, in its role as a countervailing force.


GB 84 UK
GB 84 -Faber and Faber - UK
GB84 is constructed in the form of a puzzle, a series of diverse interlocking narratives giving a view of the totality, the whole being divided into five parts. These carry titles reminiscent of quotes from songs, such as: 'Ninety-nine balloons', 'Two tribes', 'Careless whispers', 'The world on the other side of the window is one full of anxieties and fear', 'Terminus, or the triumph of the will'. Within the five-part construction, the process of division continues, in the first instance with the alternation in each part of two narratives in the first person, in the form of a diary – a personal one, perhaps – the voices of the voiceless ones, the rank-and file miners. Martin (parts 1, 3 and 5) and Peter (parts 2 and 4) describe the (for them) significant events of this long strike, and their narratives are set out around the time and location of this union-related and professional murder.


With Martin, it's the time that matters. His diary is punctuated by references to it: Monday morning, Day 1, Day 3, etc., up to day 364. For Peter, it's the place, going from the kitchen of his house in the Manchester suburbs (kitchen) to benefit payments (welfare) to the picket line (picket-line), to the different mines (Ferrybridge, Cortonwood, Maltby), finishing here on the floor (floor. Here. Floor), where the place of being, the place of the fall, is indissociable from Yorkshire.


Between these two intimate voices, there are narratives in the third person from four puppets, through whose eyes the other characters become visible: Terry Winters, Neil Fontaine, David Johnson and Malcolm Morris. Terry Winters is an official of the NUM, the miners' union, and he is meant to hide certain funds belonging to the union, to avoid them being frozen by the government. He appears as a kind of schizophrenic marionette, whose cords are pulled by big business, the Thatcher government, and his mistress, Diane. Neil Fontaine works as chauffeur for Steven Sweet, the right arm of the government. Neil is also a shadowy figure manipulated by Diane, and by Jerry and Roger of the Special services; probably ex-army, perhaps in the Special Branch, one of those men whose paths are littered with corpses. Dave Johnson, known as the Mechanic, is the other marionette controlled by Jerry Witherspoon and Roger. He is certainly ex-army, certainly in Special Branch, and an ex-mercenary in Africa. He thinks he has won the right to a quiet life, but in this shadowy world, only the dead remain silent. Malcolm Morris, called Tinkerbelle, is an agent specializing in illegal phone-tapping, an ear which listens to voices with or without names, and which records and stores what it hears, even when it is not asked to. He is also Diane's husband. The Mechanic's and Tinkerbelle's narratives alternate, marked in italics. The trajectories cross, and bridges are created between the manipulators and the manipulated. The language used echoes the helplessness felt by everyone, but a single sound predominates, that of the voice of Yorkshire.


The novel begins with Martin's narrative. It is presented in two columns, as in a newspaper, except that it is written, unlike in a daily newspaper, in the first person. A private diary, then? Perhaps, except that, unlike a diary, it employs the present tense. A present tense which is at once pointless, composed of banal remarks, and concise, the real work of a historian. The stages of the fall are illuminated step by step. The writing is not only in the present tense; it is a spoken present, as if Martin is telling his mates about the main events of his day. And because he is speaking aloud, one hears his accent. Not the changes in vowel sounds one finds in Zora Neal Hurston, but the elision of the definite article. It's extremely simple and at the same time terribly effective. Leave out one word – the – and the stress of the phrase changes. The absence of the word causes a break in breathing, which like nothing else, evokes the Yorkshire accent. It is a technique that reminds one eerily of Joyce, who conjured up the Dublin accent by a mixture of direct and reported speech. (1) However, at the same time, this technique of oralising written language removes the subtleties in the choice of the definite or indefinite article. A pub is no longer one pub amongst others, nor the particular pub, but it becomes THE pub of all pubs, or the pub as symbol. A door is no longer a door, nor the door, but THE door of all doors, whether one slams it or holds it open. What one loses in realism, one gains in reality, and the narrative, using this method, becomes that of THE miner, the sole and unique representative of his culture.


In the second part, we pass to Peter's narrative, which seems at first glance more like a personal diary, although it lacks any indications of time. The account is written in the third person and in the past tense, but one that moves from place to place, still lacking a definite article, and still in two columns. Between the two, we cover the past and the present, the individual and the symbolic view, the strike and Yorkshire. Martin's and Peter's narratives fill a page at the beginning of each chapter; on a left-hand page, they stop at the foot of the page, often in mid-sentence. Like a radio that is turned off by a switch in the car, a television whose remote control is worked by someone else, or the newspaper one reads in the underground over the shoulder of the person in front. The interrupted narrative, like an interrupted industry, an interrupted career, interrupted lives, is a manifestation of present-day Yorkshire. It is an attempt to wholly embrace a place and its human inhabitants, which reminds us once more of the relationship of Joyce to the city of Dublin. And like Joyce and Dublin, David Peace left Yorkshire, not to live in Trieste but in Tokyo, from where, like the exiled  Dubliner(2), he replaces the lost language of his childhood by a work of literature.


The written language that reproduces the spoken, and thus the living language, leaps from the page, shouts at the reader, jostles him, and joins in this new attempt to recognise reality. Peace's language is not only a tool to redefine a reality; it participates in the physical construction of this reality. It reproduces the phonetics of the Yorkshire accent, and the punctuation of an industry condemned to decline and burdened by strikes, until it becomes an intrinsic part of the march of history. The reference to Joyce gathers more and more force, and that's not all.


After the introduction to the chapter in the form of the autobiographical accounts of Martin and Peter, the third person narratives also alternate past and present tenses, again in the desire to embrace the whole scene. Comparing the initial phrases of the various third-person narrative voices in the first chapter, we become aware of different views of the situation. 'Terry Winters sat at the kitchen table of his three-bedroom home in the suburbs of Sheffield, South Yorkshire.' Past tense. 'Neil Fontaine stands outside the door to the Jew's suite on the fourth floor of Claridge's.' Present tense. 'They had their breakfasts across the road from the County Hotel on Upper Woburn Place, Bloomsbury.’ Past tense. 'The Mechanic hangs up.' Present tense. 'Terry Winters didn't sleep.' Past tense. 'Neil Fontaine receives the call’. Present tense. 'Terry Winters opened the front door of his three-bedroom home in the suburbs of Sheffield, South Yorkshire'. Past tense.


The account by the union official, Terry Winters, is in the past tense, whilst those of the secret service agents, Neil Fontaine and the Mechanic are in the present. The reader already knows right from the first chapter of this relentless novel, to whom the future belongs. But that is not the sole clue to the choice of tense for the union official. Terry Winter's narrative is also shown as a made-up story, an invention. The past tense is as much the tense of fairy stories, those that begin 'once upon a time', as of the factual account of real events. We learn, right at the end of the novel, that the unobtrusive, exemplary family in which Terry lives, with his three-bedroom house in the Sheffield suburbs, is a fiction, a fantasy, in the words of his accusers.


'There never was any wife, was there? said Len. 'No kids. Nothing.'

In the shadows of South Yorkshire, in the suburbs of Sheffield—

'Nothing but bloody lies', said Bill. 'Lies and fucking fantasies.' (3)


Terry Winters, pushed by Diane, has cheated, but in order to keep his job throughout his long betrayal has had to invent a new world for himself, another Reality. One could talk about paranoia or schizophrenia or in any case about a psychopathic state, which we see demonstrated by the language, beginning on the very first pages. For Peace, language has both depth and shape; it exists as an inventor of reality, and the past tense as a fictional indicator.


However, the past reinforces another marker in GB84, which derives from language itself, and not just from the verb tense. At the start of the third part, at the beginning, therefore, of the 'careless whispering', we can read at the start of Martin's second account:


            'Middle of the night — We hwisprian. We onscillan — '.(4)


The words in medieval English are italicised. Later on, in the following episode in Martin's narrative, we also read in italics:


            '— You have stolen my language. You have stolen my land', (5)


and further on still:


'There are whispers. There are echoes — Cwithan. Scriccettan.'(6)

(We whisper, we swing to and fro. You have stolen my language. You have stolen

my land. There are whispers. There are echoes. Cry out. Shout out.)


What is this language that they have stolen from Martin? Old English? The language of his ancestors? Or the language of Lacan, that Jean-Jacques Leclercle defines as 'the symbol of the linking of language to the unconscious' (7), and Jean-Claude Milner as 'the incarnation of the symbolic'? (8) Does the use of Old English by this Yorkshire miner signify that Martin rejects his contemporaries, in order to dig deep into the ore of the ancient language, as he has dug into the earth to extract coal? Or is it not coal that has become his earth; an ancient earth, hidden deep beneath the surface of a neo-liberal world. And it is this earth of memories, the earth of his origins, which the government has stolen from him, by preventing the miners from working, and by refusing to pay overtime, whilst withholding recognition of the work of those underground. As Martin begins to realise how futile his strike is, Old English bursts into his speech; like so many phantom voices; the voices of those who have given their labour, their sweat, and their lives, to create these mines, dig out these shafts, to feed the industrial revolution, and to provide energy, light and comfort to those living above on the surface.


Yet further on in Martin's narrative and still in italics, we read:


'This place is old. This stede is neht. (...) This place is cold. This stede is dimm.'(9)

(This place is old. This place is night. (...) This place is cold. This place is dark.)


The use of the two adjectives 'old' and 'cold', apart from the obvious repetition of sounds, evokes the idea of death: the death of an industry, the death of a profession, as much as the presence of dead things under the ground. And the two adjectives ‚niht' and 'dimm' are a further repetition of darkness, even though 'niht' and 'dimm' also evoke sin and the darkness of the soul. Again, further on:


'Deeper and deeper.' (p. 384). 'I go down. Down', (p. 400), 'Last Christmas' (p. 400).


The ambiguity of the language doesn't make clear whether it is 'last Christmas' or 'the last Christmas'. The more that the strike becomes a lost battle, the more the language drags us downwards towards the earth, towards the past, and the voices of the present mix with the voices of the dead, of society's rejects; of those, not only miners, but workers, who were exploited by history, the medieval serfs who were always sacrificed, those whom we have forgotten. Peter's narration picks this up several chapters further on, with the spatial marker 'village of dead' (p. 370), not set in italics this time, but underlined in bold. The economic dead from the industry that is disappearing, the physical deaths of the victims of police brutality, and the psychological death of men deprived of social identity. But also, perhaps, the death of the author's language, to come back to Lacan, symbolised by the use of medieval English.


In an interview early last year, David Peace provided the following observations:


“In the original manuscript of GB84, there was much, much more old English. As you say, I wanted to conjure up sleeping ghosts and also the unbroken thread of history, the echoes and the repetitions. I particularly wanted to excise as much Latin and French (sorry) derived words from the text as possible. This relates to the idea of the North, and of Yorkshire in particular, being a separate country within a country. Thatcher's treatment of the miners, for me, echoed William the Conqueror's 'Harrowing of the North' - when Norman troops killed every male in Yorkshire and salted the earth - following his victory at Hastings. This is something I plan to return to in a later, projected book (The Yorkshire RipperS) and so I continue to study Old English. And yes, I read Chaucer (as well as Anglo-Saxon poetry, Bede's history and, particularly, the Mystery Plays). And so, yes, these languages matter - they are who we are, where we came from (in the same way that the poetry of Ted Hughes or the music of Joy Division matter)."(10)


David Peace comes, then, not only from a particular mother and father, but also, like the characters in his book, from the soil and the language of Yorkshire. Based on this, GB84 could be thought of as parentless, devoid of paternity or maternity, as much in terms of its heritage as in terms of generations to come. There is something of the fantastic quality of the self-created in this claim to the deep earth and the old language, which makes one think of James Joyce. In one of his first essays, Joyce wrote: The history of words is not irrelevant to the history of man.'(11)
 When one assesses the roles of women in the novel, they are practically all traitors, unfaithful in the non-religious sense, who lead the men to destruction, like Molly, the wife of Bloom in Ulysses. Diane Morris (the wife of Malcolm Morris, although one only learns this at the end), who heads an undercover team in the Special Branch, made up of strike-breakers and neo-Nazi troublemakers, first seduces Terry Winters and then betrays him, and cheats on her own husband by becoming Winters' mistress. Then she betrays Neil Fontaine by allowing the murder of his ex-wife, Jennifer. Jennifer Johnson, ex-Fontaine, cheats on Neil Fontaine by marrying David Johnson, and then betrays David Johnson by asking Fontaine to kill him. And Margaret Thatcher betrays the miners' union, the miners themselves, and the people of Yorkshire. As Malcolm Morris says so well:


            'Until the knock on the door, and things fell apart —

Hearts. Minds. People. Marriages. Families. Unions. Governments and

societies —

They always did. They always have. They always would.

These fragile things. Burdened. These frail things. Broken —

Promises and plans. Fidelities. Arrangements and agreements. Allegiances —

Faiths turned rotten. Faiths turned bad.'(12)


They always did. They always have. They always would. The use of the adverbial marker of time (always), allows this rhythmic repetition in the original, where only the verb changes from one phrase to the other. Three auxiliaries that have become the main verb in each utterance: did, have, would, and the anaphoric fall apart, remind one of 'Ruins of Empire’ by Volney. A repetition, in any case, which imposes the idea of the inexorable fall and inevitable decay of hearts, minds, people, marriages, families, trade unions, governments and societies. A fall that strangely resembles the notion of original sin, all the more because the trigger seems to be, in most cases, a woman, and here Malcolm Morris is talking of his own wife, Diane. David Peace, in spite of the obviously Marxist orientation of his defence of the worker faced by big business, blends in, in the background, a whiff of woman's historical role as traitor and deceiver; an image derived from Milton, the Garden of Eden, and Judaic-Christian religion.


We find the same references in the prologue, the argument, as Peace calls it, again with the use of italics, as typographic markers to emphasise four words and utterances:


            'Electricity', 'A dog starved at his Master's Gate', Predicts the ruin of the State',



The power of electricity in all its senses, and two lines taken from Songs of Innocence by William Blake, takes us back again to Paradise Lost and the corruption of the state faced with Christian values. Peace's language is also full of references, quotations like those from Blake, which are twisted and transformed as the narrative proceeds. Thus the lines previously quoted in the argument become on page 439 ‚'The dog no longer a pet, black and starved— / his master gone, its teeth exposed', then on page 457, 'Her dog dead at her gate / Ruin'd and Dam'd is her state'. First an aphorism, then a description of the state, then a metaphorical judgment. Scattered through the narrative, we find references to popular songs of the period and earlier: 'The telephone is ringing’, by Police, on page 113, 'Guilty feet have no rhythm’, by George Michael, on page 309, 'Money, money, money’, by Abba, on page 404. So many reminders of reality and markers of the credible.


As we have seen, David Peace's language uses typological markers. The narratives of David Johnson and the Mechanic, and of Malcolm Morris and Tinkerbelle, are set in italics. One is in the present, and the other in the past tense, but both are in italics, in order to mark a difference in tone and voice, as if to distinguish in polyphony these two accounts of men cheated by their wives. Italics and roman alternate with each other in most of the narratives, Peter's account is peppered with geographical references in bold, and finally, nothing is systematic or perfectly legible. Even the elision of the definite article is abandoned on page 136, in order to identify the shoes of the police horses.


'The hooves bit. The hooves chewed. The hooves ate fucking earth.'


Not symbolic horseshoes this time, but real horseshoes belonging to real horses, on which ride real cops. Peace also uses language markers to locate the recurrent elements of the conflict, notably the media, journalists and the television, which often benefit from a 'smile' in italics. The phone tapping is indicated by a 'click-click', and the police identified by a strange onomatopoeic sound, rather reminiscent of Ellroy's aerials. 'krk-krk' ‚ mimics the sound of an insect, but also resembles 'crook', recalling police corruption during the strikes, which, far from defending law and order, was often the cause of the violence. These markers serve to give rhythm to the story, and to blend the different voices into one, that of reality.


As for Joyce, David Peace's project seems to have been to write a book in its totality, to take a semi-divine view over that strike, that region, in that year. Even if there are numerous allusions to the activities of the secret service in other conflicts and other countries, they only serve to make more credible the shadowy figures, without which the conflict that brought the state and the miners into confrontation would not have evolved in the same manner. To paraphrase Slavj Zizek(14), Peace's aim is to lead the reader into the hell of reality, close to the media as tools of power (smile), close to illegal phone tapping (click-click), close to a police force under the orders of the same anti-libertarian, even anti-democratic powers (krk-krk).


The psychoanalyst Michel Schneider states that the writer's language, his mother tongue, is acquired not as an instrument for the expression of beliefs and emotions, but through an interdiction, a union which is at the same time a separation, the repetition of the union with, and the separation from, the mother. Not a neutral tool, but a collection of words filled with desire and hatred and with love and guilt, which results in a further formulation of the central contradiction inherent in all of us. According to Schneider, a style is the result of separation and the conflict between the writer's own language and the mother tongue which he is trying to seize. 'To write is to do violence to one's own language, in a sadistic defence against the influence of one's mother — and there is hatred in such a relationship'. (15)

David Peace, like Joyce, has gone away. He has left Yorkshire and England, to live not in Trieste but in Tokyo. Was his self-exile a way of creating distance in order to be able to write, or did the possibility of writing come with the distance? In any case, like Joyce, Peace never ceases to return to the spot that he left – like the criminal at the scene of his crime – to auscultate it as much in its language as in its soil, its constituent elements, its history, and its past. To attempt to restore it to its whole state, as faithfully as possible. To bring about, perhaps, that separation and appropriation, which for Schneider, forms the basis of a style.


1-« In the end, he would give her the money and ask her had she any intention of buying Sunday’s dinner » Eveline in Dubliners, Ed. Penguin Classics, 2000 p 31
2-CIXOUS Hélène, L’exil de James Joyce (ou l’art du remplacement) Grasset, 1968
3-GB84, Faber and Faber 2004, p 457
4-GB84 op. cit. p 230
5-GB84 op. cit. p 238
6-GB84 op. cit. p 272
7-LECERCLE Jean-Jacques, The Violence of langage, Routledge 1990, p 38
8-MILNER Jean-Claude, Les noms indistincts, Seuil 1983, p 42
9- GB84 op.cit. p 340
10-Exchange with David Peace, 17 January 2007 - Personal Archives S. Benson.
11-JOYCE James, Ouvres, La Pléiade, Gallimard, 1982, p 907
12-GB84 op.cit. p 437
13-GB84 op. cit. page non numérotée
14-ZIZEK Slavoj, Bienvenue dans l’enfer du réel
15-SCHNEIDER Michel, Voleurs de mots, Gallimard, 1985, p 286



Stephanie Benson writes in French: over forty noir fiction novels and short stories, science-fiction novels and short-stories, poetry, theatre and screen-play for French television. She is also a university teacher with an MA in English preparing a PhD on multilingual writers in the world of decolonisation. She has recently translated Virginie Despente's thought-provoking feminist-punk essay "King Kong Theory"

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