17th Dec 2010

Peace at Leeds Met

After weeks of walk-outs, sit-ins and shut-downs, this week Peace finally arrived at Leeds Met. David Peace, that is, author of The Damned United and the Red Riding quartet among other novels. Actually, Peace postponed the original date of his visit to the School of Cultural Studies because it clashed with student protests – a touching gesture by a highly political writer.

Peace began by reading the opening sequence of The Damned United, his acclaimed story of Brian Clough’s 44 days as manager of Leeds United. You may have seen the film, which is piss-poor, but the novel is gripping and also very funny (I recommend it). Then he read the ending of GB84, a violent and disturbing account of the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, and another fine example of Peace weaving fiction with historical fact. Both readings were enhanced by the author’s deadpan Ossett dialect. The chair of the event, Dr Tom Herron, set the tone for discussion with this pertinent remark about Peace rewriting the occult history of Yorkshire. 

This is the most potent theme evoked in Peace’s novels – that tension between history and cultural memory. Peace revealed that he spends around 12 months researching the period about which he intends to write – a meticulous task, made more impressive given that almost all his tales are post-1970. Here is very contemporary history, within reach of many living people’s memories, but just far enough gone to allow scope for uncertainty, romanticism and mythology.

When I read Peace’s first novels, the later-named Red Riding books, my immediate theoretical instincts drifted towards Fredric Jameson’s perspective on the disappearance of individual style. Jameson’s cultural logic of late capitalism states that aesthetic – and highly commodified – pseudo-versions of the past come to disrupt, and ultimately replace, documentary-like histories that claim to be true and authentic. In the battle between originality and what Jameson terms intertextuality (texts that borrow elements from, and frankly plagiarise, other texts), the latter always wins through. The outcome of this postmodernist state of affairs is the commercialisation of nostalgia texts (retro films, music, architecture, furniture, etc.) and the emergence of pastiche. Pastiche is the art of imitating existing forms of art without acknowledging their existence.

Pastiche, in Peace’s work, amounts to an imitation of true events and true lives to create a wholly alternative (fictional) past that effectively – though it may not wish to – engages in a rewriting of real history. To be crude, the headline in the figurative Postmodern Times might read something like this:

NON-HISTORIAN NOVELIST WRITES NEW (AND PERFECTLY VALID) HISTORY OF MINERS STRIKE/RIPPER MURDERS/LEEDS UNITED/ETC…

Given this dislocation of time and memory, I would hazard a view that Peace is an important writer, not just of past times, but of our times too. His rich evocation of 1970s and 1980s pop culture is worth the price of his books alone. Indeed, he brings all of this media, music, sport and culture even closer to the here-and-now than it already is, what with all those latest cover versions, tribute acts, time-detective TV dramas, vintage clothes, retro football shirts and so on. In Yorkshire-speak, we may well ask: what year’s this anyroad?

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