Pete Davies is the author of eleven works of fiction and non-fiction,
variously published in the UK, the USA, Italy and Japan. He is forty-four years
old, and lives with his wife and two children in West Yorkshire, England.
After studying English Literature & Language at Oxford, Davies worked as a cocktail barman for nine months of 1980-81 in a London nightclub owned by Richard Branson. He then wrote advertising copy for two and a half years - the only salaried employment in his life - before flying to Morocco in the spring of 1984 to write his first novel at the age of 25.
He’d actually written two other novels before this, one as a student, and another in the gap between nightclub and ad agency - but by his own admission, both were unreadably bad. It was the discipline learnt whilst writing copy that made the difference, and Davies maintains to this day that any one week in that ad agency was more useful to him as a writer than all of his three years at Oxford.
The first draft of The Last Election was written in two weeks in a room on the roof of a hotel in Rabat, and it was enough of an improvement on the earlier efforts that a contract was secured with Andre Deutsch in London towards the end of 1984. Clutching a Remington portable, Davies flew to Peru, and spent two months in that country and in Bolivia producing the final draft.
The novel was published in the UK, the USA and Italy in 1986, and the critics were kind:
“A fast, inventive and funny thriller which holds us to the last” - The Observer.
“If Brazil had been based on a novel, it might well have been The Last Election” - Terry Gilliam.
“Very impressive ... a highly original and chilling satire” - The Literary Review.
In 1988, Davies moved from London to the small village of Glyn Ceirog in North
Wales. At this time, using money earned as a freelance copywriter in coprorate
communications, he was traveling widely in the United States, Central America,
Africa and Eastern Europe. Journeys to Kenya, Wisconsin, and Nicaragua during
the Contra war eventually formed the background to a second novel, Dollarville.
Finished in a hotel two blocks from the White House as George Bush the Elder was being inaugurated, Dollarville attempted a satirical sally against Reaganism just as The Last Election had tackled Thatcherism in Great Britain, and again the critics were kind. “Mr Davies,” said the New York Times Book Review, “possesses a mischievous, wry wit and a wonderful eye for the illuminating detail.”
For all that, Davies now thinks Dollarville to be his worst book, believing that while it may have had some good things about it, in general it was naive, chaotic, and overambitious. It didn’t sell well, and (although he didn’t know it at the time) along with his thirtieth birthday, it marked the end of his time writing fiction.
He wasn’t troubled, because by the time Dollarville came out he was already deep into the next project - the one which made his name in Great Britain.
All Played Out is the true story of the England soccer team’s epic journey to the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup in Turin, Italy. Commissioned by William Heinemann in London, it was a brave piece of publishing for two reasons.
Firstly, when the contract was drawn up, England hadn’t even qualified for the tournament - and no one gave them much chance of success in it if they did qualify either. Secondly, soccer at that time was distinctly unfashionable in England, a grubby, loutish, violence-racked ogre of a sport so ill-favored that Margaret Thatcher had actually wanted to ban England from taking part in Italy at all. In consequence, apart from bland, barely literate, ghost-written ‘autobiographies’ of the odd leading player, no one published books about it. Most likely, no one thought soccer fans could read.
All Played Out changed those perceptions forever, paving the way for Nick Hornby’s marvelous Fever Pitch and its many lesser imitators. Blessed with the good fortune of following a team that actually turned out to be marvelously good, and whose heroic failure to make the final had thirty million viewers in tears before the television back home, Davies found himself riding a tempestuous rollercoaster of sport, riot, journalistic mischief, and Italian organization.
At Italia ‘90 he went to twelve matches in six different cities in twenty-seven days - then wrote a 470-page book about it in two months flat. Finished by September, it was in the shops in November, and immediately hit No.11 in the non-fiction chart - something unheard of for a sports book at the time - but then, rarely had a sports book attracted reviews like these:
“This could well be the best book ever written about football” - Time Out.
“Pete Davies is incapable of writing a dull sentence .. one of the most outrageously entertaining books of the year” - Daily Post.
“A suberb read, and surely destined to become one of the classics of the game” - Tribune.
“Exhilarating ... full of drama, full of its own reckless and compelling logic” - Independent.
Certainly, there would have been a compelling commercial logic to it if Davies
had promptly written another book about football. Instead, exhibiting the
restless eclecticism which has resulted in a life more interesting than
profitable (and who’d have it any other way?) Davies spent three months of 1991
researching another of his great and various fascinations - namely, the elusive
heart of America.
In the town of Coffeyville, Kansas, Davies bought a 1981 Ford half-ton pick-up truck, and set off on a trail 7,500 miles long through the Great Plains. The resulting book, Storm Country, was hailed by Time Out in London as an “excellent, off-beat travel book ... a great, windswept summer read.”
By now Davies was winning numerous commissions to write for magazines and newspapers, traveling to locations as various as Poland, Marseille, Gibraltar, Japan, Namibia and Los Angeles in pursuit of stories. Books took a back seat for a while, with the whimsical exception of Twenty-Two Foreigners In Funny Shorts, an attempt (enjoyable, but almost certainly doomed) to produce a guide to world soccer for Americans in advance of World Cup USA ‘94.
“Pete Davies,” said the Sunday Times in London, “is to the New Football Writing what Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson have been to the New Journalism.”
At which point Davies stumbled on a real labor of love. While professional soccer in England was being transformed by Rupert Murdoch’s money into an addled circus of celebrity excess, Davies chose instead to write about the Doncaster Belles - the best women’s football team in England, who, being women, were almost entirely unknown. Davies spent a season with them, even moving house and family to Yorkshire to be closer to his subject. The result, I Lost My Heart To The Belles, was a book entirely heedless of commercial logic, but which attracted delicious reviews all the same - most likely for that very reason.
“I was swept away” - Mail on Sunday.
“Superb” - Independent.
“Witty, warm, wise and inspiring ... this is that rarest of sports books, a cracking good read that will appeal to the reader without the slightest interest in sport” - Yorkshire Post.
By now predictably unpredictable, Davies chose next to cover Great Britain’s general election in 1997 - the poll that ended 18 years of Conservative rule as Tony Blair rode a landslide into Downing Street.
“So illuminating ... succulently well-written ... the pace and tension as it reaches its climax leave you on the edge of your seat ... this book is a treat from page one. By the end, it’s a triumph” - Guardian.
“Acute and affectionate ... genuinely moving” - Independent on Sunday.
“Engrossing and impassioned ... a wonderfully readable account” - Mail on Sunday.
Davies now entered a period where he was producing a book a year. Returning first to his private campaign to see English women in sport receive a degree of acclaim commensurate with their skill and commitment, he followed the English women’s cricket team to India to watch them defend their title as world champions. After four vivid weeks in December 1997 of enthralling cricket, madcap travel, and highly dramatic stomach ailments, Davies returned home to write Mad Dogs And Englishwomen.
“Exhausting trials and gastric tribulations .. a journey that even a mad dog would have cowered at” - Independent.
“Every year, in amongst all the usual rubbish, there is a book about cricket that extends the range ... a beautifully crafted piece of work, and not to be missed” - World Cricket Magazine.
As soon as it was finished, Davies began research on his next book on a subject more deadly earnest altogether. During 1998 he traveled to Atlanta, Washington, Toronto, Hong Kong, Holland, Hawaii, and beyond the Arctic Circle to the Norwegian island of Svalbard to research the calamitous ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic of 1918, an event responsible for the deaths of 40,000,000 people worldwide - and to follow the efforts of scientists today to prevent it happening again. The book was called Catching Cold in Great Britain, and The Devil’s Flu in the USA.
“Superb ... rich in interest and truly alarming ... this is a book that deserves to be read” - Observer.
“Enthralling ... the virus hunt is what gives Catching Cold its
narrative tension. The author builds this up as skillfully as if he were writing a thriller ... read the book; you won’t be disappointed” Spectator.
Months before it came out, Davies was well under way with the next project. He
spent four weeks of early 1999 in Honduras, researching the appalling impact on
that country of Hurricane Mitch. He then lived for the peak three months of that
year’s hurricane season on Miami Beach, working with the scientists of the
Federal Government’s Hurricane Research Division, and flying with them into the
eyes of Hurricanes Bret and Floyd.
Again, the book that emerged was given different titles on either side of the Atlantic - The Devil’s Music in Britain, and Inside The Hurricane in the USA - and why that should be he cannot say. He contents himself with observing that one should never question the wisdom of publishers, in case one discovers that they have none. Regardless of what the book was called, however, once again the critics were kind.
“Riveting reading ... Davies takes a complex subject and makes it both understandable and interesting” - Houston Chronicle.
“Riveting and informative ... an epic poem about one of nature’s grand phenomena ... a true tale of high adventure” - Weatherwise.
“Fascinating ... a remarkable synthesis of reportage, history, science and adventure” - Publishing News.
“Informative and entertaining ... a good and useful book. And talk about beach reading” - Washington Post.
“Davies is a very good writer” - Mail on Sunday.
There followed a brief hiatus while Davies followed a couple of cold trails,
before he lucked out and stumbled on his eleventh project - one he enjoyed at
least as much as any of the others.
Reading The Prize, Daniel Yergin’s magisterial history of the oil business, Davies found three paragraphs about an army motor convoy that crossed the United States from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco in 1919. On first glance, the subject had those three crucial qualities a non-fiction writer wants more than any others - it was historically significant, it was a great story, and it was all but entirely unknown.
Davies went to the British Library to research it, and it turned out that the convoy’s journey in 1919 was an epic. It took them sixty-two days to cross America - a distance of 3,250 miles, at a time when for two-thirds of the way there wasn’t any road. There was just this dream of a road, a majestic phantasm called the Lincoln Highway. It was the first transcontinental road, and it was as important in the development of the modern United States as the transcontinental railroad before it - but when Davies asked his American friends about it, virtually none of them had heard of it.
It seemed incredible that the story should be thus forgotten. After all, it explains how we’re all driving around in cars now; it tells how our lives came to be the way they are. Can you imagine a world without roads? Without gas stations, interstates, motels?
Davies spent four weeks of February and March 2001 mining libraries in Kansas and Michigan. In April, he flew to Washington and bought a pea green 1985 Chevy Caprice for $2,000. He had the telegrams that two officers had sent back to HQ from the convoy every day. He knew every place they stopped, every incident, every accident - so he set out to recreate their journey, stopping every place they stopped, stopping every place they went through, and finding the local paper for that time.
He filled a suitcase with paper - photocopied news reports, articles from historical journals, bits and pieces of ancient guidebooks, all the life and times of America along the Lincoln Highway in 1919. It took him sixty-one days to get across the country - one day less than the convoy had taken eighty-two years before - and Davies describes it without hesitation as the finest journey of his life.
The resulting book, American Road, was published by Henry Holt in New York in June 2002. It was, said Roger Miller in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Simply a crackerjack book, a dandy slice of Americana.”
And that, for now, is where Pete Davies’ story ends. As always with a writer - with this one, anyhow - the next chapter isn’t clear until it’s happened.
Ohio Lincoln Highway League