“The socialism I believe in is everybody working for the same goal and everybody having a share in the rewards. That’s how I see football, that’s how I see life.” Bill Shankly
Red or Dead, David Peace’s novel about Bill Shankly, is easy to parody. A few have tried – including some reviewers who should know better. What is harder to pastiche is the amazing effect Peace achieves through his technique, which deliberately mirrors the repetitiveness, the obsessive single-mindedness, of Shankly’s own approach to football management and, indeed, to life (as Peace describes, he took the same approach to cleaning his oven that he took to training his players). The cumulative impact of Peace’s obsessive recounting of the results of Liverpool FC under Bill Shankly, of Shankly’s approach to training, his endless reshuffling and remodelling of his team, his rituals, at home and at work, and his relentless attentiveness to detail, and then the sudden fall, his resignation, the life after work of a man whose life was his work, is difficult to convey in words. It has to be experienced, which is, of course, Peace’s point. His aim, he has said, was to create a ‘living experience’ for the reader.
In my view, it’s a brilliant achievement, though it will not be to everybody’s taste – and some have branded it unreadable. It has ruffled a few feathers within what Peace, a Yorkshireman living in Tokyo, refers to as the ‘London media’. One reviewer, DJ Taylor, keen to express his low opinion of both football supporters (not up to difficult books, he implies) and fans of literary fiction (snobbish and elitist), reckoned the book would find few readers: ‘The average football fan will put it down after a dozen pages. The highbrow fiction fancier will applaud the aesthetic passion that drives it, while turning up his, or her, nose at the subject matter.’ Luckily for David Peace, neither caricature is true – his book has proved hugely appealing to football fans and enthusiasts of literary fiction alike – and those of us who enjoy both (such creatures do exist, believe it or not) are, it is fair to say, over the moon.
Some have questioned the degree to which Peace’s novel can be regarded as a historically accurate record, but I think this misses the point. While he has clearly been painstaking in his approach to the available documentary material (very few errors have been spotted – remarkably few for a book of this size, with this level of factual detail), Peace is aiming at a different kind of truth. By reading the book – it is a book that demands to be read quickly, but carefully, in large chunks – we experience a life and a philosophy, of both football and life, and we live it, as much as we can, as Shankly lived it. This is the sort of truth Peace is after. What we get by the end is a sense of what Shankly was like, what a really good man is like. Peace does not tell us Shankly was a good man; he shows us. He coveys – incredibly powerfully, I think – the force of Shankly’s personality and his method, and the extent to which his ambitions for Liverpool FC were achieved. He also conveys – equally powerfully – the sense of loss and loneliness that attended Shankly’s retirement, as well as his sense of justice and the depth of feeling for others he demonstrated throughout his life, but especially in retirement. In a way, this is a novel about loss, a loss that transcends football – the loss of community, the loss of a way of doing things, a way of thinking about life, about others, about ourselves, that Peace thinks are exemplified in the life of Shankly, in the way he lived that life.
Still, though, there is the question of the style, which is likely to be the most divisive issue among readers. Certainly, the novel will not be for everybody. Here is an example, picked at random, which is typical of the style Peace writes in throughout the book.
Swansea Town were in the Second Division. In the doldrums of the Second Division. Liverpool Football Club were in the First Division. Near the very summit of the First Division. Folk were saying Liverpool Football Club were certain to knock Swansea Town out of the FA Cup. Folk were saying Liverpool Football Club were certain to reach the semi-finals of the FA Cup. Again. Folk were saying Liverpool Football Club could reach the final of the FA Cup. Folk were saying Liverpool Football Club could win the FA Cup. Folk were saying Liverpool Football Club could win the League, too. Folk were saying Liverpool Football Club could win the League and the Cup. Folk were saying Liverpool Football Club could do the Double.
This is the way Peace likes to write, and he sustains it over 700 pages. His prose is bold and unadorned. It is also repetitive; a technique Peace uses sometimes for comic effect, sometimes for poetic effect, but mostly just for the cumulative power this constant reiteration of detail lends his prose. In this way, he manages to convey far more of the character and inspirational obsessiveness of Shankly than many a more descriptive or literary novelist might. And he does it in a way that makes real thematic sense, given his nature of the man, his subject matter.
Some will love the repetition, the masses of detail; others will be turned off by it. For me, the detail, and in particular the detail about Liverpool FC, the succession of names, games and goals over Shankly’s 15 years in charge of the club, gave the book a special resonance. It was familiar to me, though my own football memories begin a little after Shankly’s retirement, because of my dad and his own memories of the game, which began when Liverpool FC still languished in the Second Division. As a child (like Michael Palin’s Barnstoneworth United-supporting son in Ripping Yarns), I knew the names of every player in Liverpool’s 1965 cup winning side by heart (I still do). My mum and dad had been a part of the incredible surging, swirling mass of 250,000 people who crammed into Liverpool city centre to acclaim Shankly and his victorious players when they returned home from Wembley. Because of this, the book was, for me, brilliantly evocative of the place and time of my growing up.
Peace, in interview, has quoted Shankly famous remark about football being like a river, a ‘relentless task that goes on and on’. He seems to have thought about life in the same way; that is, as a constant, repetitive task, without respite, in which nothing is settled, nothing is permanent; always the next game (little wonder he so disliked the idea of retirement). Success is uncertain and when it does occur it is fleeting, transient – what really matters is the way we prepare, how hard we try and how we conduct ourselves, especially in the small things. If we do right in the small things, he thought, if everybody is doing the right things, everyone doing their bit, with the same goal in mind, success is almost guaranteed. That’s how he thought about football, about politics, about life. His football was a form of socialism, guided by a belief that every contribution mattered and every contributor was equal and deserving of equal respect and an equal share of the rewards. That was the secret of the Liverpool teams he created – teams without stars, in which everyone worked hard, not for themselves but for everyone around them.