David Peace may be back in Japan but his heart remains in West Yorkshire. Grant Woodward catches up with the author as The Damned United prepares to hit the stage in Leeds.
THE last time I spoke to David Peace he was living down the road from his parents in Dewsbury. Conversely for a writer who single-handedly created the Yorkshire Noir genre with his “factional” take on the county as he knew it in the Seventies and Eighties, it was an odd fit.
Peace hadn’t lived in England for two decades. The distance seemed to be what allowed him, through his novels, to process the memories of the turbulent West Yorkshire of his youth. Sure enough, the homecoming proved fleeting. He is now back in Japan, where he first moved in 1994, with his Japanese wife and two teenage children.
“My mum and dad were getting on a bit and I thought it would be good to go back,” he says over a crystal clear Skype connection from his home in Tokyo, the occasional whine of a late evening moped in the background.
“But I didn’t find it easy to write. I was too distracted by being round my friends and family, having Sky Sports News and things like that.
“It can sound a bit dramatic or pretentious but I need some degree of isolation. And no matter what people say about Dewsbury, it’s not actually that isolated.”
There was a time when it felt that David Peace was everywhere. His novels dominated not just the bestseller lists, but also the television schedules and cinema listings.
His Red Riding Quartet – boiled down to three parts for television – was followed by the big screen version of The Damned Utd, his reimagining of Brian Clough’s ill-starred 44 days in charge of Leeds United.
It is now about to open at West Yorkshire Playhouse, the first time one of his works has been seen on a UK stage. It’s to help out Leeds-based radical socialist theatre company Red Ladder after it lost its Art Council funding. More of which later.
The funny thing is that the critically-acclaimed film, starring a mesmerising Michael Sheen as Clough, brought Peace’s work to a wider audience without him actually liking it too much.
It was his son who stopped him “being a grumpy old man about it” and he readily admits he sold a lot more books on the back of it. Even so, he feels it was an opportinity missed.
The original idea was for it to be shot in black and white as a tribute to Saturday Night, Sunday Morning and This Sporting Life, to honour the great northern cinema of the Sixties. The films that had inspired the novel in the first place. The finished version was a far more glossy, feelgood affair with a noticeable injection of humour.
“But it’s my son’s favourite film,” he adds. “And I’ve always thought the acting performances were great and it was a good experience. I’m not trying to be churlish, it’s just my honest opinion. But at the same time I’m very grateful when people come up to me and say they saw the film and had never read my work but then went out and bought the book, then bought GB84 (his novel about the miners’ strike). It’s just that the first draft of it would have been more to my taste.”
So he’s pleased that the stage version, adapted by playwright Anders Lustgarten and which opens next Friday, seems to have more in common with the book than the film.
“I read Anders’ first draft and I liked it a lot,” he says. “I know the way Red Ladder work and it will change. But it is closer to the book than the film. It’s harder, it’s edgier and it’s darker. Put it this way, it doesn’t have Brian Clough getting on his knees and serenading (his long-suffering assistant) Peter Taylor. It’s not a bromance.
“One thing theatre has, which a novel or film doesn’t, is that you’re in it. It’s closer to the reality of a football match. If you go to Elland Road or Huddersfield or wherever you’re seeing a form of theatre before your very eyes. So in a way I think this is the perfect form for it.”
Did that apply to the jazz ballet version of the Red Riding Quartet he once caught in Bologna? “That was quite something,” he chuckles. “But I think it was for one night only, which was probably just as well.”
With nine novels in a little over 15 years, Peace is one of the more prolific writers of his generation. Even so, he has admitted to being disillusioned by the novel as a form.
“Well, disillusioned with the form of my own novels anyway,” he says. “If you look at the theatre, the image of it is a very middle-class, rarefied atmosphere. But I remember going to a Red Ladder production at a working men’s club in Wakefield and it was the most fantastic night out you’ll ever have.
“A novel is quite a lonely, isolated experience – both writing and reading it. It’s obviously what I do but I think of the theatre in terms of a communal, shared experience. The theatre has endless possibilities whereas the novel is more limited. So what I try to do is to make each novel that I write different. Not experimenting for the sake of it but not to keep writing The Damned Utd, to push the limits.”
To this end he shoehorned no fewer than 12 narrators into 2009 detective novel Occupied City. One of his stylistic trademarks is repetition, which brings a poetic, rhythmic quality to his work.
Having threatened to quit after his twelfth novel, the 49-year-old is thinking of writing one about Geoffrey Boycott and Yorkshire County Cricket Club. He fancies cranking this repetitive quirk to new extremes by having it take the form of a ball-by-ball account of Boycott’s hundredth first class century at Headingley in 1977. I can’t quite decide whether or not he’s joking. There is also UKDK, touching on the government of Huddersfield-born Harold Wilson and what this Labour Party supporter – who voted for Jeremy Corbyn – calls the “death of the Left and the rise of the Right”. At present these ideas are contained in several boxes stashed in a cupboard in his writing room at home.
“Things come to me or I find articles I think will be useful and then I file them away in that box. The idea is that hopefully when I’ve finished one book one of the other boxes is near to the top and there’s enough to start writing.”
But first he’s looking forward to seeing The Damned United on stage. He’s flying in from Japan to see it and simply hopes that audiences like it and that it helps Red Ladder out of a hole. He got to know the group after meeting producer Chris Lloyd at a literature festival a few years ago.
“Your friends are fighting for their survival and I said if you think it would help you can have the Damned Utd and see if you can find someone to adapt it.
“I think it’s typical of the times we live in that an organisation like Red Ladder – which for years has done so much work in schools, in community theatre, trade unions and in prisons without seeking publicity – should be targeted,” he says.
“And maybe it’s because of their political opinions as well. It just seems at the moment that it’s very easy to be tough on the little man.”
The Damned United runs at the West Yorkshire Playhouse from March 4 to April 2. For tickets call 0113 213 7700.
Peace in our time, the story so far
David Peace was born in Ossett in 1967. He attended Batley Grammar School, Wakefield College and Manchester Polytechnic, which he left in 1991 to go to Istanbul to teach English. He moved to Tokyo in 1994.
Encouraged to write by his father, The Red Riding Quartet, published between 1999 and 2002, dealt with police corruption set against a backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders. A three-part TV adaptation aired on Channel 4 in 2009.
He followed the quartet with GB84, a fictional portrayal of the miners’ strike, and The Damned Utd, which was turned into a film. In 2013 he published Red Or Dead, detailing Bill Shankly’s Liverpool career and retirement. He is currently completing the final part of his trilogy of Tokyo-set crime novels.