Grim Lives

Sunday March 8, 2009 in books read 2009 | david peace

He brought the gun down upon my head:
THIS IS THE NORTH. WE DO WHAT WE WANT!”

It’s likely that you are probably in police custody if you haven’t noticed the excitement currently being generated around David Peace and Channel 4’s Red Riding adaptations of his novels. Having recently finished 1974 I was interested in seeing the television version, but approached it with a little more reserve than those who are hailing this as the tv event of the decade.

Peace’s world is a brutal one. Yorkshire in the 1970s where corruption and police brutality are rife. Reading the novels I am surprised just how debased the police were and do question the authenticity of the work, although the author maintains his belief that this is a true depiction of the depths the police found themselves in at the time. In 1974, a newspaper reporter is threatened by the police for being too nosy about a murder investigation. When he keeps digging, he is brutally attacked and his hand is broken in a car door. Later in the novel he is subjected to a vicious physical and verbal interrogation (this is nothing; in another Peace novel, 1977, a black murder suspect is beaten and humiliated into giving a semen sample by a group of jeering white officers). It’s a nasty and gruesome world, and it doesn’t help that Peace periodically slips into vivid dream sequences in his narrative and there are almost poetic sections that attempt to tie together his appalling imagery. So why is he so good?

I’m still deciding on an answer. Although 1974 has some flaws with a far from seamless plot, I’ve concluded that Peace is a talented writer with his breadth of vision. His writing is at times both hackneyed and remarkably fresh, weaving a tired noirish voiceover together with an almost Biblical vision of hell, corruption and horrible pain. With this in mind, I did wonder how Channel 4 would cope with him. 1974 is a sickening novel, and its voice – the reporter Edward Dunford – spends a lot of time getting sick. Often it’s the drink he consumes, but more so the seedy and terrible world he begins to peel apart. Dunford is a fascinating creation, going beyond the usual journalistic type you might expect from this type of fiction. The novel begins with his father’s funeral, and Dunford refers to his father’s watch and his father’s car in the early chapters, a young man inheriting his father’s artefacts. Is he ready for such an awful initiation into manhood that’s to come? Having shown the family and whatever values it might represent, Peace destroys them in the unfolding story of a terrible crime and the ruin of several lives and families. It’s an appalling, yet fascinating, chain of events that Dunford slips into.

Sean Bean in Red Riding

Channel 4’s adaptation looked promising, with an impressive cast including Warren Clarke, David Morrissey and Sean Bean (who was simply a revelation). The film started very impressively, depicting the boozy and masculine ruled world that Dunford inhabits. For me, the problems started with the liberties taken with Peace’s original novel. Whilst I accept that changes have to be made when adapting from page to screen I did find them quite brutal, and began to suspect that the adaptation was making changes in the arrogant stance that it was improving upon the original, which is always a dangerous stance to take. Characters were merged (three into one at one point), critical sequences were dropped when other less important ones were retained. Most alarmingly, the ending was changed, and although the Channel 4 adaptation retained the essence of the original it was too different from Peace’s unique vision.

The Red Riding series is still essential viewing, but I suspect that more essential is the books themselves. 1974 is difficult and hard to stomach, but considering the subject matter you can’t cut corners. David Peace has a point to make and a grim world to depict. You can only do this with a book.

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