David Peace – The Red Riding Quartet books 1 &2 – ‘1974’ and ‘1977’
In an earlier post I wrote about the book ‘The Damned Utd’, a ‘factional’ account of Brian Cloughs short and ill-fated tenure as Manager of Leeds United in the mid 1970s. Prior to that, the author, David Peace, had written a quadrilogy of books known as the ‘Red Riding Quartet’ – titled ‘1974’, ‘1977’, ‘1980’ and ‘1983’. The use of the ‘Red Riding Quartet’ as an umbrella title is a clever play on words as it refers to the ‘west riding’ of Yorkshire where the books are mainly set and the red alludes to the blood of the murdered the books are so awash with. The use of Red Riding is not coincidental, as I believe this is a deliberate attempt to reference the tale of red riding hood, a young female at the mercy of a predator. This theme is threaded throughout the 2 books of the quadrilogy I have read so far. These stories are largely about a patriarchal society where women are perennial victims, a reflection on the time when these stories are set. In ‘1974’ the victims are pre adolescent girls at the hands of a paedophile. There are references to Stefan Kiszko, only he is known as ‘Michael Myshkin’ in this book. In ‘1977’ the victims are adolescent girls or women, the work of the ‘Yorkshire Ripper’ and other unknown assailants.
Like a nastier, bloodier literary sibling of the BBC series ‘Life on Mars’*, David Peace uses police procedural drama as a narrative device to show the state of Britain at a particular period in time. The police, in the main, are portrayed as corrupt, violent, bigoted and often clueless in the face of serious crime. The policemen who are central characters in the books, such as DC Bob Fraser in ‘1977’, are flawed, unsympathetic characters, even though they are shown to be a cut above the morass of scheming and reactionary police they work alongside. The journalists who essay the work of the police and the crimes they try to solve are portrayed as nihilistic, selfish and flawed, as much a product of their time as the police. The uneasy alliance between police and journalists is documented as a fragile working relationship, where favours are constantly pulled, money buys silence and the freedom of the press, and the reporters (and one in particular – Jack Whitehead) are shown to be more adept at researching a crime and opening up new avenues for investigation. As if to expand on the suggestion that Journalists are frustrated wannabe police, the fledgling crime reporter of ‘1974’, Eddie Dunford, at one point claims to have wanted to be a policeman, but didn’t have the balls to go through with it, much the same as he wanted to write books, but didn’t.
The police in the red riding quartet are, by turns, vigilantes, hired hands, judge, jury and executioner. They have no moral ambiguity and they have no desire to revise their opinions once they have who they believe is the suspect in a crime. Their modus operandi can be seen as making a square peg fit in a round hole. That is, if they believe they have the guilty in their clutches, it is a case of making the guilty realise they committed the crime (regardless of whether they are the perpetrator). As is stated in ‘1974’ Yorkshire was populated with
“Hard towns for hard men.”
If you were not White, Male, Heterosexual and a Policeman, you were potentially a suspect. If you were Black, Irish or a Gypsy and a Male, then your chances of being implicated in a crime increased dramatically. The ‘liberal’ use of the words ‘wog’, ‘paki’ and ‘nigger’ used in casual conversation as well as in anger demonstrates how far we have needed to move forward in terms of respect and understanding a multicultural society in Britain. Further to this, the Yorkshire Male is a generic figure, seemingly reduced to base desires – alcohol is virtually eaten, such is the craving for it, and the main characters are driven by their sexual impulses, where getting ‘hard’ is a frequent occurrence. There is a self destructive pattern to their behaviour, willing to risk everything by following no particular moral code. They are unfaithful to their women and are absentee fathers, they drink heavily and fight, steal and pimp, beat and torture. They don’t seem to have love for anyone on unless that love is indiscernible from sexual attraction. The testosterone fuelled actions of the protagonists, the seediness of the settings, the base language and baser attitudes bring to mind some of the New English Library pulp books of the Seventies such as ‘Chopper’ and ‘Skinhead’.
The Yorkshire that Peace describes is painted in brushstrokes that bring to mind Pieter Breughel the Younger – a living hell, with the skies either black or slate grey, raining ‘cats and dogs’, populated with victims and predators, where conspiracy theories are only theories until ‘they’ catch up with you. Big Brother is alive and well and living in Yorkshire. Big Brother is watching over everyone. A place filled with faded people under oppressive skies, a place haunted by the dead and where the living seemed haunted by the past and thwarted ambition, this version of Yorkshire also serves as a microcosm of the state of the UK in the 1970s, a time of political turmoil, the ever present and real threat of terrorist attack and the drudgery of economic hardship.
In his later book that tells another story from 1974, ‘The Damned Utd’, Peace had no option but to use real life characters to tell an interpretation of the events that led to Brian Clough spending 44 days in charge of the English Football Champions. To not have the likes of Bremner, Hunter, Giles, Clarke, Revie and Peter Taylor explicitly defined in the book, the whole drama of the story would be lost. There is an assumption that you are aware of the personalities of these people – they were, after all, some of the biggest names in UK football in the 1970s. A little knowledge more than helps breathe life into the book. However, in the Red Riding Quartet, Peace uses artistic license. Out of (what I assume to be) sensitivity to the families of the victims of the real crimes documented in the books (and especially in 1977), there is an intermingling of real and fictional characters in these books. For example, George Oldman was the Detective in charge of the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper but the victims in ‘1974’ and ‘1977’ are fictional. What Peace does do is ensure there is symmetry with his version of Yorkshire in the Seventies and the real Yorkshire in the Seventies by dropping in all sorts of real events to contextualize and drive the story. There is reference to the ‘Cannock Chase murders’ of young girls. There is reference to the Moors murders committed by Brady and Hindley. In ‘1974’ a man with learning difficulties is charged with the rape and murder of young girls, echoing the true life case of Stefan Kiszko. In ‘1977’ the real timeline of murdered women is mirrored in the book. Only the names have been changed……..The fake letters sent by ‘Jack’ ‘from Hell’ to George Oldman rear their ugly, unwanted head and there is constant background noise that references 3 day weeks, strikes, power shortages, the contemporary music of the day. It all gets blended into a dark and apocalyptic stew where the only Yorkshire glamour seems to be a woman singing cabaret songs at the local Press club, on a stage no bigger than 2 steps one way, and 2 steps the other.
Peaces style is breathtaking and audacious, conjuring Biblical imagery and Apocalyptic doom in a broken staccato style that bears comparison to Cormac McCarthy. In much the same way that McCarthy tears up the rule book on composition, so does Peace, evidenced when, at the startling end of ‘1977’, the recurring imagery and mantra-like phrasings that permeated the story congeal into a massive stream of consciousness that feels like a descent into the banality and viciousness of mans ability to produce misery and evil. That said, his style is unique and can take some getting used to. On occasion it is unclear what is real, what is fantasy, and what is in present time and what is not.
David Peace, in his ‘Red Riding Quartet’ produces books that are gripping in the most literal sense of the word. Once you enter this threadbare, grey and violent world, populated by the innocent, the guilty and those meant to protect and serve, you find yourself compelled to keep looking even when the creeping dread of horror becomes inevitable and then apparent in front of you. Both ‘1974’ and ‘1977’ mix the real and the unreal until the boundaries become blurred, like gritty British working class ‘kitchen sink’ drama shot through with a bad dose of pcp. Once I get to ‘1980’ and ‘1983’ I will let you know what I think. That will not take too long, because as soon as I finish one of these books I want to start the next.
*Page 69 of ‘1974’, in a pub, on jukebox, David Bowies ‘Life on Mars’ is playing……..
Finally I would like to acknowledge that the appeal poster that sits at the top of this post was taken from a great looking site called ‘the real 70s’ (http://real70s.blogspot.com/. It looks fascinating and worth a look. Lots of archive material.