David Peace at the Epstein Theatre, Liverpool (a Writing on the Wall event), 14th August 2013
To read The Merseysider’s review of David Peace’s novel Red or Dead, click here.
With a huge supporters’ banner (originally created for the last match in front of the old Kop) providing the perfect backdrop, Brian Reade welcomed David Peace to Liverpool to launch his new Bill Shankly novel, Red or Dead. Reade (himself introduced as ‘the Usain Bolt of sports journalism’) said he was delighted to be interviewing one of the finest writers of his generation, who’d now written a book about the greatest football manager ever. It was that kind of night, but as we were celebrating Bill Shankly, who as David Peace later pointed out always thought the best of everybody, the prevailing atmosphere of backslapping goodwill seemed entirely appropriate.
Peace answered Reade’s questions, gave a couple of readings and then the discussion was thrown open to the audience. It made for an entertaining and informative 90 minutes (more so than some of Liverpool’s 2013 performances), and was followed by a book signing in the bar, where Farm frontman Peter Hooton was manning the decks. (He’d managed to source all eight records Shankly had picked for his appearance on Desert Island Discs, ranging from Mario Lanza to Gerry Marsden, via Jim Reeves and Kenneth McKellar).
Peace (whose previous novels include The Damned United, about Brian Clough) explained that when Shankly was first suggested to him as a subject, he realised almost immediately that it was a perfect choice. Before Liverpool Shankly had managed Huddersfield, where Peace is from. ‘My dad and granddad used to talk about him, about what might have been if he’d stayed. My dad always said he was a good man, a good socialist.’ He was also keen to write something positive and celebratory, after several novels focused on crime, corruption and political conflict. ‘I was looking for an inspiring story, and when Bill Shankly’s name came up it was as if he’d been there in the room with me, all the time, waiting.’
Peace said he was initially drawn by the idea of writing a book based around Shankly’s resignation (in 1974), but then when he began his research was taken aback to discover the scale of the effort and achievement in Shankly’s previous 15 years at Liverpool. The research took a year and was ‘an absolute pleasure. I was amazed by the extent to which he was a truly good man, every day of his life. By the end of the book I felt I’d written about a saint. Looking at all the message boards and the fan forums, there were so many stories. I could have filled 7,000 pages with them, never mind 700.’
The novel includes numerous episodes based on incidents that actually happened – encounters with fans, journalists, players and other managers. It’s divided into two ‘halves’, Shankly’s time at Liverpool and the years after he resigned. In the first part, Peace explained, ‘I wanted to capture the way he inspired people to join this great crusade, the incredible journey he took the club on. I tried to make the book a living experience, so the reader was swept along and knew what it was like to live through it.’
Peace was an excellent reader of his own book. The short, repetitive sentences he often uses create a strong, insistent rhythm which is very apparent when they are read aloud. ‘I shouldn’t say this, but it’s a book which sounds better than it reads,’ he said, perhaps only half joking.
When questions were invited from the audience, several people contributed their own Shankly stories. Peace also elaborated on Shankly’s socialism. ‘He believed everybody was equal, and that everybody should help each other. That informed everything he did. He recognised in the supporters, specifically the Kop, people who were the same as him. Other managers, like Busby and Revie, were successful, but no one else had such a strong relationship with the crowd.’ Peace also said it was regrettable that the kind of socialism Shankly stood for had all but disappeared from public life. ‘There’s no sense of idealism now within the Labour party, and socialism is not a choice that’s available to people anymore.’
The conversation turned towards the last years of Shankly’s life. ‘Johnny Giles [the former Leeds player] said once that Shankly died of a broken heart, but I think that’s overstating it. He certainly can’t have been in any doubt about the reverence he was held in by the fans, and their affection towards him – we know that from all the stories of his meetings with fans, on trains or in the street.’ The rift with Liverpool FC also lessened with time. ‘There’s a nice story of him on the night of Liverpool’s third European Cup win, in the hotel bar after the game, having a quiet drink in the corner with Bob Paisley. So I don’t think there was any acrimony towards the end.’
It’s probable that, like The Damned United, Red or Dead will be made into a film, and the question of who was capable of rising to the challenge of playing Shankly came up. Brian Reade’s suggestion of David Tennant drew a few groans from the audience (‘I’d rather have a pint of Tennents,’ observed one wag). Peter Mullan (currently starring in BBC’s Top of the Lake), who Peace said was a name that many were putting forward, seemed a more popular choice.
When the question and answer session ended, the packed house gave Peace a tremendous reception. He said earlier that he’d worried when he started the book whether he’d be able to do justice to such a remarkable man as Shankly. But it was clear from those who’d read the book, and from those who’d simply heard him speak, that everyone felt he was the right man for the job.