David Peace

Forgettable conversation with acclaimed author. Click Play Audio to listen to a podcast from Peace's reading

‘It’s been a roller-coaster ride for you, David.’ 

Literary ‘in conversation’ events are notoriously Manichean. When they’re good they’re great - funny, revealing, vital. When they’re bad - well, they’re pretty godawful really.

Unfortunately, interviewer Marie-Louise Muir’s asinine remark is emblematic of an hour with author David Peace that promises much but delivers precious little in the way of insight, or entertainment.

Peace has been one of the success stories of contemporary British fiction. Born and raised in Yorkshire, he has spent most of his adult life working in Japan – although it is his dark, sombre tales of Peter Sutcliffe and the West Riding that have won him critical and commercial success.

Now back living in Yorkshire, he has made the short hop over to Belfast’s Baby Grand for the Belfast Festival. Peace is here to read from his work and parley with the BBC’s Muir - though before he’s even begun the omens aren’t good.

Dressed from head to toe in black (it’s not often you see a black cardigan/shirt combo) the bespectacled author of books like GB84, a gritty tale of the miners’ strike, and The Damned United - his fictional account of Brian Clough’s 44 days in charge of Leeds United - sits in front of barely two dozen hardy souls. On the other side of an IKEA coffee table, Muir shifts uncomfortably, leafing furiously through a copy of his latest novel, The Occupied City

The format is that Peace reads from his work, then takes questions, then reads from another work, then more questions, and on and on until he’s run out of books and/or the crowd have run out of interest. The poverty of this historical method is revealed before the author has moved onto 1977 (the second in his excellent Red Riding Quartet): we get lots of names and dates, and snippets of text but little in the way of telling personal detail.

All too often it all feels like a rather dry lecture, with Peace reluctantly reading at the lectern before sitting back down to Muir’s dull questions. The suspicion that we’re being talked at is hardly helped by Muir telling the audience at one stage, ‘if there’s anything you want to ask, just put your hand up'.

Although Muir’s knowledge of Peace’s work appears worringly diaphanous (if her questions are anything to go by), their conversation does yield a few gems, particularly when the writer discusses the true stories that provide the basis for his work.

His confession that he feels 1974 is ‘too violent’ and GB84 has ‘too much crime’ is fascinating. Later, he admits that he turned down the opportunity to meet both Brian Clough and Arthur Scargill. ‘I thought it would cross the line and it would no longer be a novel,’ he remarks without any hint of regret.

Muir, however, is too busy moving onto the next rehearsed question to dwell on these occasional fissures. And so, somewhat unusually for these events, the highlight is the author reading his work, Peace’s flat northern vowels bringing to life, in particular, the stark, poetic, staccato rhythm of GB84.

The David Peace I spoke to at length a few weeks ago – garrulous, witty, erudite – is missing in action here until the questions from the floor at the end of the reading. It seems telling that a fan’s remark about Cloughie elicits a much more colourful response than any of Muir’s blunt probings.

‘Very few people have won the European Cup, but almost everyone has done a job they didn’t like,’ Peace says of the motivation for The Damned United. As the forgettable 'in conversation' winds up, this critic knows exactly what he means.

Peter Geoghegan