TOKYO is plagued by crows. They are thieves and murderers, stealing the eggs of meeker birds and biting through high-speed internet cables. Walking through Ueno Park to meet David Peace this morning, I watch one of them drag a plastic bag of food away from a sleeping homeless man. There is another screaming on a bare branch outside Peace’s office in Nezu, and it continues for the duration of our interview. “I actually quite like them,” says Peace. “Apparently they will remember your face, if you throw a stone at them or anything. They’ll sort of file it away for next time.” There are crows in his novels too, especially his first four, where they performed some totemic function in what Peace has described as “occult histories” of the North of England, each book taking its title from the year in which it was set: 1974, 1977, 1980, 1983.
“Leeds, fucking Leeds,” he wrote in the third of them, through the narrative voice of a Manchester policeman assigned to catch the Yorkshire Ripper. “Medieval, Victorian, Concrete fucking Leeds. Decay, murder, hell – Dead city: Just the crows and the rain. The Ripper gone – The crows and the rain, his meat-picked bones – Leeds, fucking Leeds – The King is dead, long live The King.” Paddy Considine will play that character, Peter Hunter, in a new series of films for Channel Four, adapted from three parts of Peace’s so-called Red Riding Quartet. 1977 has been dropped from the sequence, which the author considers both a shame and a “relief”, because it remains his personal favourite of the novels. He has a good, if distant, relationship with Tony Grisoni, who wrote the TV scripts. Grisoni surely had his work cut out, given prose passages like the one above, which approach a kind of poetry by way of rhythm and repetition.
But Peace wasn’t involved, so it wasn’t his problem. “To state the very obvious,” he says, “a book is a book and a film is a film. They should be completely different. It should be almost impossible to make a text into a screenplay.” He had even less contact with the makers of The Damned United, a big-screen version of his “fiction based on fact” about Brian Clough’s brief and terrible reign as manager of Leeds United Football Club in the mid-1970s. That film, starring Michael Sheen as Clough, will be released in cinemas at the end of March. Red Riding will air on the small screen earlier in the month. It appears that the spring of 2009 will be the season of David Peace. Which means very little to the man himself. “It’s certainly not validating,” he says. “I suppose it’s a bit embarrassing. What this year means to me is publishing my latest book, and writing the next one. By sheer coincidence, films of Red Riding and The Damned United will also be coming out, but I don’t see those as my work.” The new novels he’s referring to will be parts two and three of the trilogy he began with Tokyo Year Zero in 2007. His middle volume is now finished, and the last is under way in these rented rooms, which resemble a flat more than an office, with books stacked up in one corner (plays by Heiner Muller, poems by Paul Celine), cds in another (his tastes were formed in the punk era, then defined by Joy Division), and the two of us drinking English tea in the kitchen. Peace’s house is across the river in Sumida Ward, an area that he tells me was once “criss-crossed by hundreds of little canals”. After the second world war, they were filled in with ashes. “If I’m writing about Tokyo in 1948, I will get maps from that period and walk certain routes,” he says. “By walking around, you feel the past coming back to life.”
Peace must be feeling something where there isn’t much to see. His recent fictions have been set in the localised dark age that followed Japan’s defeat and surrender, when this city was effectively restarted from scratch under power of the American forces who had all but erased it with fire-bombs. Modern Tokyo stands over the grave of its former self, and Peace is perhaps more sensitive to this than other foreigners, other novelists, more receptive to the blackest implications of the old Situationist slogan: “Beneath the paving stones, the beach!”
“The Situationists get a bad rap,” he says. “They’ve been turned into something like a Che Guevara t-shirt. But there are serious ideas underneath, particularly their psycho-geographic expression of the way that cities become charged with meanings over time. “I definitely feel that in Tokyo, and I wanted to go down through the layers, like an archaeological dig, to find the meaning of the place. What happened here has been concreted over, but the past reappears, and grows out between the cracks.” Peace has lived in Japan since 1994, having moved here from the UK via Turkey, where he spent a couple of unhappy years as an English teacher. The plan was to teach here too, for just long enough to pay off his student debts, but he met and married a Tokyoite, and they had two kids. Their eldest, George, is now 11.
Despite his name, George is more Japanese than British, culturally speaking, but has grown into Man United fan, thus realising one of his father’s “greatest fears”. Peace, like his own father before him, supports Huddersfield Town, which is practically the home team of his birthplace in Ossett, West Riding. That region is more officially known as West Yorkshire. And when Peace was his son’s age, the Ripper was at large. “It seemed like he was always there,” he says.
“After every murder there was intense media coverage, and the posters went up in the bus stations, but then it would all die down for a bit. Then he would strike again. “He actually started killing in ‘75, but I think it was about ‘77, when I was 10, that I started cutting out the clippings from the newspapers. The first books I ever read obsessively were the Sherlock Holmes stories, around the same time, and I had this ridiculous notion that I was going to catch the Yorkshire Ripper.” Peter Sutcliffe was eventually arrested late in 1980, about a year into Margaret Thatcher’s first term as prime minister. Peace’s parents were also teachers – a headmaster and a headmistress – and this was the beginning of their disillusionment.
“As we know, Thatcher had it in for the unions, and the teachers were like a personal vendetta for her. So as well as the shadow of the Ripper, you had the shadow of the Iron Lady. Against a constant backdrop of the war in Ireland. I know the news is never good, but it seemed to me an especially brutal period of history.” His lasting impressions of “things that bothered me as a child” might explain why the Red Riding Quartet, GB84 and The Damned United seemed to inhabit their times and places so ferociously, despite being written at such a remove.
Those first six books were published in the UK at a rate of one-per-year between 1999 and 2005 (Peace appeared on Granta’s auspicious list of Best Young British Novelists in 2003), while all the work was done in Japan. He says that distance actually helped, allowing him to remember how Yorkshire used to look and sound – the “violence” of the speech, the “unforgiving” moors and industrial cities – “without the distractions of the present”.
His mother helped too, apparently, making photocopies down at her local library from yellowed back editions of the Yorkshire Post. “If you want to know how a society once lived,” says Peace, “you need to read their old classified ads.” He makes me think of James Joyce, writing Ulysses in exile in Zurich and Trieste but describing Dublin down to the last quarter-inch, and sending his brother to double-check his measurements. Peace himself was thinking more of James Ellroy, the American crime novelist whose pedantic, near-lunatic historical fictions he found in the second-hand bookshops of Tokyo’s Jimbocho district. His own debut novel, 1974, now reads like “sub-Ellroy” to him, but what bothers him most is the fact that he fabricated a lurid child murder to initiate his plotline, and by extension, his career. “I am not particularly proud of that book, because it contains a lot of the things I have come to dislike about crime as a genre. Even the notion of crime fiction, crime movies … 90% of them are just imagined by authors, who will argue that they’re only stories. But murders and rapes take place in the real world, and the suffering never ends for the people affected. So how do we reconcile this as entertainment?”
Peace’s subsequent novels were almost corrective in sticking closely to the known facts of the Yorkshire Ripper murders, the miners’ strike, and Brian Clough’s 44-day misrule of Leeds (although former midfielder Johnny Giles won an apology in court for his portrayal in The Damned United). And then there are the unknown facts, the secret or hidden social histories that Peace is referring to when he calls his books “occult”. His latest, Occupied City, is based around the Teigin incident, which is still notorious in Japan because most now believe that Sadamachi Hirasawa, the painter accused of poisoning 12 Tokyo bank workers to death in 1948, was completely innocent. When Peace started amassing material for this project, with the assistance of an editor from his Japanese publishing house Bungei Shunju, who would read out random items from their newspaper archive (“headlines, prices, weather reports, anything that might help me recreate that world”), he almost convinced himself again that he might actually identify the real killer.
“My publishers here were getting very excited, but of course that wasn’t possible in the end. When people read the book though, they’ll certainly know who didn’t do it.” This novel brings Peace the closest he has come to the other kind of occult, as practiced in Japan’s oldest folk tales and outlawed religious rituals. Inspired by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, writer of the classic short story In The Grove (which in turn inspired Akira Kurosawa’s classic movie Rashomon), he lets the murder victims speak for themselves, albeit through a spirit medium.
“The killer is the always the least interesting character,” says Peace. “Or he should be. I’ve always tried to place the victims at the centre. I want them to be a constant, haunting presence in the narrative.” He has rituals of his own, which can make his writing process sound arcane – Peace said once that he fixates on the past until “a door opens” that allows him to enter. Today he will admit that some of these are less than healthy, or helpful. “I have this thing with numerology. Like when I begin a sentence with a nine-letter word, I have to follow with an eight-letter word, and so on. Also, I can only send the manuscript to publishers on dates that add up to nine. Ridiculous really. It became a real problem with this book.” Occupied City will be his eighth novel.
He has plans for another four, including the last in his Tokyo Trilogy and a project titled UK Decay, which concerns Thatcher and the Yorkshire cricketer Geoffrey Boycott. When he reaches number 12, he says he’s going to stop. “Twelve is enough. It’s a lot. You can wear out your welcome. I’ve been writing every day since I was seven, so I’ll probably keep writing, but no more novels. Maybe Faber will publish my very bad poetry.” At this point, Peace is writing like nobody else – not James Ellroy, not Akutagawa, not Ian Curtis, all of whom have also been described as “men possessed”. But with that crow still outside the window, it doesn’t seem so weird to suggest that he shares their pathological sense of responsibility to the dead. “I suppose so. If you’re writing about a real crime, that responsibility is to understand the context in which murder took place. To at least ask why these people died. You need to respect them, and mourn them.”