28 October, 2013Issue 23.2Sport

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A Socialist and A Saint

Calum Mechie

redordeadDavid Peace
Red or Dead
Faber and Faber, 2013
736 pages
ISBN 978-0571280650


David Peace is a Yorkshireman, a socialist, and a novelist. The central preoccupations of all of his books have been place, politics, and literary form. They are all, as their postscripts declare, fictions based on facts. The Red Riding Quartet details Yorkshire’s fear and frenzy in the years of its ripper. GB84 fixates on the fury and fanaticism of the miners’ strike. The Tokyo Trilogy—two down, one to go—loosely transports the detective form from the Riding to US-occupied Tokyo. The Damned United (controversially) communicates Brian Clough’s (allegedly) whisky-soaked frustration over his 44 days in charge of Leeds United. Transcribing the 15 storied years of Bill Shankly’s management of Liverpool FC and then the seven years of his retirement, Red or Dead continues the theme. For Peace, though, there is a difference: whereas the other work deals with the dark sides of troubled men Red or Dead, he explained to sportswriter Anthony Clavane (in the most recent issue of The Blizzard—The Football Quarterly) “is the story of a good man. A socialist and a saint.” This may be an important distinction, but Shankly’s dual characterisation corresponds to the terms of the dichotomy—between fact and fiction—at the heart of all of Peace’s work.

Shankly is the man who famously said that football is not a matter of life or death, but something far more important than that. That is part of the Shankly mythology and though Peace quotes him accurately—”Some people say football is a matter of life and death. I’m very disappointed with that attitude. It’s much more important than that”—the mythology remains (for one thing, when Shankly made that provocative comment he was in fact paraphrasing another legendary manager: Green Bay Packers icon, Vince Lombardi). “Bill was always working,” we are told and we are convinced of this by the innumerable lists. There are lists of Shankly at training: “in the rain, Bill lifted weights. Bill skipped. Bill jumped. Bill did squats […]. Bill turning with the ball, dribbling with the ball […]. And in the rain, Bill ran one last time around the training pitch.” And there are lists of Shankly dressing: “Bill opened the second drawer of the dressing table. Bill took out a tie. The red tie his daughters had given him once for Christmas […]. Bill put on his tie. His red tie.” There are lists of Shankly doing the housework: “Bill picked up the Brillo pad. Bill sank the Brillo pad into the bucket of water. Bill pulled the Brillo pad back up out of the water. Bill squeezed the water from the Brillo pad.” “The story”, Peace told Clavane, “is in the work, in the acts of Bill Shankly.” If this is true, then there is no story; Shankly becomes mythological, his life a question of form. This seems to be what Peace intends: “Shankly himself”, he continues, “described football as a relentless river that goes on and on,” and he thinks “that most football supporters will appreciate that. Because even as supporters we all know how consuming and draining football is.” The vast culture industry by which the game is surrounded bears witness to this and when Peace says that he “wanted the novel to be a book the reader would experience and live, just as Shankly experienced and lived it,” an essential part of the paraphernalia of a certain type of supporter is brought to mind.

Football Manager is a data-based simulator which allows players to experience what it would be like to be, for example, Bill Shankly. It is infamous (as the football writers Iain Macintosh, Kenny Millar and Neil White have testified) for the way in which it consumes hours. It is a game, to paraphrase Peace, both experienced and lived. Through the simulator’s iconic narrative style, matches are generated and spliced into bits of text which flash up on screen as players speed read their way through seasons. The painstaking collection of micro-match reports which constitutes many of the first 500-pages of Peace’s novel evokes this model:

On Tuesday 8 October, 1968, Everton Football Club came to Anfield Liverpool. That evening, 54,496 folk came, too […]. But for the first half-hour of the one-hundredth League derby, Liverpool Football Club were completely eclipsed, completely outplayed by Everton Football Club […]. But the supporters of Liverpool Football Club refused to accept defeat. And so the players of Liverpool Football Club refused to accept failure. And in the seventy-fifth minute, Ian St. John was fouled on the edge of the Everton penalty area. And Tommy Smith stepped up to take the free kick. Smith struck the free kick. And West did not move in his goal. And the ball flew past West into the goal. And the one-hundredth League derby was drawn–One-all.

Like George Orwell, or Stokely Carmichael, Peace thinks that every book is political. Like playing Football Manager, though, reading is an irreducibly solitary activity and the form of Red or Dead preserves, and even heightens, this effect.

Reading Red or Dead is a draining experience, but rather than consuming his readers Peace holds them at a distance. Peace’s prose is staccato, halting, evocative of the style of Shankly’s speech: not so much a river as a march. Peace has said that he listened to recordings of Shankly speaking obsessively while writing Red or Dead. The form of the novel, then, is wrought in Shankly’s personality and personalities—even socialists and saints are, it seems, individualistic. The community of football is referred to throughout the novel—even the Football Manager-style commentaries reach outwards to the “folk who came too”—but it is seen, always and only, through the myopic lens of Shankly’s obsession. This is unfortunate because football is not a halting game; its global popularity is frequently attributed to the restlessness of its perpetual action.

Shankly knew this. His “football”, he told the newly-former PM Harold Wilson in a glorious radio interview, “was a form of socialism”. The legendary names—Ian St. John, Roger Hunt, Kevin Keegan—that flash through the novel are always connected: by passes, crosses, and freekicks. On training pitches, in dressing rooms “at home, at Anfield” and on pitches “away from home, away from Anfield” they are always “the players of Liverpool Football Club”, inspired by and inspiring “the supporters of Liverpool Football Club”. The lists of players’ names evolve but the collective remains, and remains Red. Football functions in Red or Dead not as the “bread and circuses” palliative that Orwell thought it but as a metaphor for socialism. This is often, as in the match reports, made opaque by the novel’s form. Occasionally though, usually when Shankly speaks for himself, and we listen, it is clearly and vividly expressed.

Towards the end of this novel, and the end of his life, we see Shankly in a café speaking to a younger man: “You do right”, he tells him, “to count your blessings, son. You do right. You have your job, you have your work”. “And the football,” says the man. “Yes. You’re right, son. You’re right. We’ve always got the football. No matter what a mess the politicians make of things, son. No matter what a mess they make of the world. We’ve always got the football, son.” For Shankly and for the young man, for the people of Liverpool, this is a valuable fact and Red or Dead is at its best when it communicates this sense of community, when Shankly’s socialism and his sainthood coexist. If the focalisation on Shankly limits the novel’s collective impulse, it also provides a narrative arc against which the perpetual flow of football is punctuated. Almost in spite of Peace’s fictional form, the facts of Bill Shankly combine into a heroic folk tale.

We see him rise from lonely adversity to community:

Now Bill could hear other voices. Quietly, slowly. Beginning to rise, beginning to echo. When you walk through the storm. Other voices. Hold your head up high. Beginning to rise. And don’t be afraid of the dark. Beginning to echo. At the end of the storm. Quietly and slowly. Is a golden sky. Other voices, another song. And the sweet silver song of the lark. Rising. Walk on, through the wind. Echoing. Walk on, through the rain. Quietly and slowly. Though your dreams be tossed and blown. Around the ground. Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart. Down the tunnel. And you’ll never walk alone.

Then to sainthood:

Ladies and gentlemen. This is the greatest day of my career. The happiest day of my life. I have known nothing like it as a player or a manager. Because you are the greatest fans in the world. We have won for you. And that is all we are interested in, winning for you. And the reason we have won is because we believe in you and you believe in us. And it’s your faith and your interest have won us something. Thank God you are all here. Thank God we are all here. Thank you. You don’t know how much we love you. Thank you.

In and out of work—”Red” and “Dead” (though the parsing is really too neat)—Shankly is always a saint: “I am not a genius. I have only ever tried to be an honest man. And to make you proud. And make you happy.”

The people of Liverpool are always with him and “SHANK-LEE, SHANK-LEE—SHANK-LEE” is as consistent a refrain in the second half of the novel as in the first. And they are with him still, just as he, saint-like, is with them. “The Spirit of Shankly” remains the name of the supporters group that has, with others, campaigned for justice for the 96 Liverpool supporters who died at Hillsborough, Sheffield in 1989. Those 96 deaths were lied about in a despicable institutional cover-up that is only now being uncovered. Two years ago this week, the victims’ names were heard in parliament for the first time when Steve Rotheram, Labour MP for Liverpool, Walton, read them out. Rotheram’s halting list is another relevant antecedent to Red or Dead. It is a reminder that content always precedes form, that life is more important than football and that politics should always only be in service to life. Despite his occasional bravado to the contrary, these were the principles that guided Shankly’s life. In its communication of the facts of that life, Red or Dead is a valuable fiction.

Calum Mechie is reading for a DPhil in English at St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. He is a contributor to the sports website SB Nation.