Book review: Red or Dead, David Peace’s new novel about Bill Shankly
(Note: David Peace talked about his book when he appeared at Liverpool’s Epstein Theatre – read our report on the event by clicking here. Bill Shankly also features in our article on Merseyside’s Scottish managers. To read it, click here.)
‘I went to the table and picked up the book. The big, red book. The big, red, 720-page book. I carried it over to a chair. I sat in the chair and began reading. I read the first paragraph on the first page. I read the second paragraph on the first page. I read the third paragraph on the first page. And then, on the last line of the page. On the very last line of the very first page of the big, red, 720-page book, the third paragraph ended. And so I turned the page of the book and began reading the second page, the second page of the big, red…’
Apologies to Frank Cottrell Boyce and anyone else who considers Red or Dead a masterpiece, but there are moments in it when David Peace’s prose style seems almost beyond parody. Mind you, it’s still a very good novel – quite possibly a football classic, up there with such non-fiction greats as Arthur Hopcraft’s The Football Man and Hunter Davies’s The Glory Game. But just how highly you rate it is likely to depend on whether Peace’s repetitive, staccato sentences work for you or not. And while for me they often do work, after 720 pages I was left wondering whether you can sometimes have too much of a good thing.
But more on that later. The front cover of Red or Dead has a white horizontal line running across the middle of it, making it resemble the two halves of a football pitch. The idea of contrast and division runs through the book. It’s there in the title, and in the eternal dichotomies of football: home and away, attack and defence, one team against another, victory or defeat. Most importantly, the book has what Peace himself calls a first half and a second half, focusing in turn on two distinct phases of Bill Shankly’s remarkable life: his years as manager of Liverpool, and his subsequent retirement (a word Shankly hated). The novel’s title has several possible meanings – referring most obviously to Shankly’s passionate commitment to Liverpool football club, and to his socialist principles – but one of these is that Shankly’s life after he resigned as manager of Liverpool was actually a kind of death.
The first part of the book begins in 1959, when Liverpool were becalmed in the middle of the second division and Shankly, then managing Huddersfield, was asked to take them over. The next 500 pages take us through to his shock resignation – former player Brian Hall once said it was like hearing Kennedy had been shot – in 1974. Each season is covered in painstaking detail, with blow-by-blow accounts of numerous games, and we see how Shankly slowly built a team that won promotion, two League championships and an FA Cup, then dismantled it and built another that regained the title and won the FA Cup again, along with a UEFA Cup.
The book exerts a strong narrative grip and we’re soon immersed in Shankly’s life, sharing with him the relentless cycle of hope, fear, glory and disappointment. Any football fan is likely to enjoy this part of the novel. Peace has clearly done his research and the re-imagining of Shankly’s pep talks before, during and after the matches is authentic and fascinating. The obligatory exchanges of congratulations and commiserations with fellow managers once the game is over are also convincing (Matt Busby the wise, considerate friend, Don Revie the comically churlish rival, always bemoaning the unfairness of Liverpool’s ‘lucky’ victories). Shankly’s success is attributed partly to a ferocious work ethic, and we see how during every close season he would sit down for weeks with his backroom staff (Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan and others), analysing the squad’s strengths and weaknesses and carefully planning every training session for every player. If he had a flaw, Peace’s account suggests it was his handling of players he’d decided to drop or move on: ruthlessly efficient in putting the interests of the club first, but relying on others to relay these decisions to the players (as episodes involving Ian St John and Tommy Smith illustrate).
The book implies one reason for Shankly’s resignation was simply that he was exhausted, worn down by the unending struggle for success. Another was guilt at his neglect of his family, especially his wife Ness. But Peace’s moving portrayal of the last seven years of Shankly’s life suggests that in retirement he was often a lost, bewildered figure. At first he sought to deal with the new void in his life by acting as if nothing had changed, turning up every morning at the training ground – where the players still called him ‘boss’ – until he was asked to stay away (the beginning of a sad deterioration in his relationship with the club). Applying the same methodical intensity he’d employed in management to household tasks such as cleaning the oven and tidying the garden didn’t work either. He carried on going to matches, and would share his views on the game with anyone prepared to listen, waiting outside the press room for any journalist on the lookout for a quote.
A more positive aspect of this concluding phase of the book is the time Shankly spent with ordinary fans: kids who came to his house asking him to join in their kickabouts (which he did), and the supporters he met on trains, or in cafes and car parks. Again Peace’s research is evident here as these encounters are based on actual incidents, incidents which demonstrate Shankly’s genuine warmth and kindness, as he gives strangers his tie, his scarf and even his umbrella.
One of Shankly’s most laudable qualities is that he really was a man of the people, and his socialism is an important strand in the novel. It’s reflected in the photographs at the beginning and end of the book: one of the Liverpool Transport Strike in 1911 (two years before Shankly’s birth), the other of the People’s March for Jobs in 1981 (the year of his death). As a manager he repeatedly reminded his players to respect and appreciate the fans, and created a team ethic (‘Everyone working for each other’) which he described as ‘Pure socialism’. In his private life he lived simply and modestly, never moving from the semi-detached house in Bellefield Avenue, West Derby that he bought soon after he got the Liverpool job. He loved Liverpool as a working class city that was full of character, a city that he often compared to Glasgow. When Celtic’s manager Jock Stein told him he was looking forward to the coming match between their teams ‘in England’, Peace has Shankly correcting him: ‘You’ll see me at Anfield, John. And Anfield is not in England. Anfield is in Liverpool. And Liverpool is not in England. Liverpool is in a different country, John. In a different country, in a different league.’
The closing chapters of the book include two accounts of encounters with Harold Wilson, a Labour politician Shankly admired and with whom his life had several parallels. They were born within three years of each other, and both had links with Huddersfield and with Merseyside (Wilson grew up in Huddersfield, moved to the Wirral when he was 16 and was MP for Huyton). Wilson served in the postwar Labour government of Clement Atlee, which Peace suggests represented the kind of socialism Shankly believed in. The first meeting in the book occurs when Wilson, who was prime minister at the time, appears on a radio show Shankly agreed to host for Radio City. Rather bizarrely, Peace gives us what appears to be an unedited transcript of the interview – a conversation which certainly has its moments, but which I’m not sure warrants 25 pages. Soon after it took place Wilson, just like Shankly, unexpectedly resigned at the age of 60 and, as dementia slowly took hold, seemed, like Shankly, a man adrift, hosting his own memorably embarrassing chat show and appearing with Morecambe and Wise on TV.
Red or Dead is of course imaginative fiction rather than a biography, and one result of this is that much of Shankly’s life is missing from the book. There’s very little about his career as a player, his previous managerial jobs or his family background. His older brother Bob, who managed in Scotland, only gets a couple of passing mentions. (Though Bob Shankly’s something of an unsung hero anyway. Did you know he steered Dundee United to their first – and to date only – Scottish title and, incredibly, to a European Cup semi-final? And like his brother he was no big-time Charlie: the morning after Dundee won the championship he was in his garden before 9 o’clock, mowing the lawn). But the book’s concentration on Shankly’s inner life means that even people who played a significant part in his Liverpool years are only sketchily drawn. Ness emerges as an understanding, loving (and loved) wife, Bob Paisley as a wily, hardworking and unfailingly loyal friend, but their portrayals don’t go much beyond this.
But if Red or Dead isn’t a biography, it isn’t a conventional novel either. Peace is clearly an accomplished writer and it’s very apparent – this is true of his other books as well – that he has deliberately adopted certain stylistic techniques. There’s minimal description of places or people, for example, and characters (including Shankly himself) are revealed by what they say or do rather than by any explicit account of what they are thinking or feeling. And then there’s the book’s unusual length. Its epic scale reinforces the sense of a magnificent, epic life, but some readers are bound to feel there’s just too much of it.
Which brings us back to Peace’s prose style, and the insistent repetition which is its hallmark. This extract, describing the first day of pre-season training in 1971, is fairly typical:
‘Bill Shankly waited for the players, Bill Shankly greeted the players. Bill Shankly shook their hands and Bill Shankly patted their backs. He asked after their weekends, he asked after their families. Bill Shankly laughing, Bill Shankly joking. And then Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Reuben Bennett, Ronnie Moran and Tom Saunders joined Bill Shankly and the players in the car park at Anfield. Then Bob Paisley, Joe Fagan, Reuben Bennett, Ronnie Moran, Tom Saunders, Bill Shankly and the players all climbed on the bus to Melwood. Bill Shankly joking, Bill Shankly laughing. Everybody laughing, everybody joking.’
Peace quotes in the novel Shankly’s comparison of professional football to a river, constantly flowing and impossible to step out of. He has also said he was trying to create this kind of sensation in the book, and the short, repetitive sentences do convey a feeling of relentless movement, giving us an impression of the ceaseless activity that eventually wore Shankly out. And Shankly himself lived a life of repetition and routine: the extract above is not only repetitive in itself, but closely mirrors the descriptions on other pages of other pre-season training sessions, which always followed the same pattern. In the match descriptions, the short sentences often capture the ebb and flow of a game, and echo the chanting of the crowd. There can also be something Biblical about the rhythm of the sentences, appropriate to an almost mythical tale in which the hero is (in Peace’s words) ‘a saint’.
So Peace’s way with sentences, which is certain to irritate many, can be defended. But whether it’s a technique which can be extended over 700 pages without wearing a bit thin is open to question.
Nevertheless, despite its possible weaknesses, Red or Dead is a fitting tribute to Bill Shankly in the year that marks the centenary of his birth. He was an amazing man and this is a pretty amazing book.