Interview: David Peace on doing justice to Bill Shankly
After the stooshie over his portrait of Brian Clough, David Peace tells Aidan Smith he wanted to celebrate a football manager he regards as a hero – Bill Shankly
WITH his shaved head, Swinging Sixties spy specs and a Yorkshire accent undisturbed by 19 years living in Japan, it was always going to be difficult for this author to pass through Liverpool unnoticed – not least because of his reputation as one of the most daring British novelists of his generation. And then there was his calling card: “Hello, I’m David Peace and yes, I wrote The Damned Utd which upset Brian Clough’s family. Now, tell me about the most charismatic, obsessive, quotable and impersonated football manager who ever worked in this city…”
Obviously, Peace didn’t approach Red or Dead, his epic tribute to great Scot Bill Shankly, quite like that. The stooshie caused by his previous football book, the dark portrait of Clough and his disastrous 44-day reign at Leeds Utd, was unintentional. “I’d written about police corruption and the miners’ strike before that and thought they’d be the controversial ones,” he says. The Damned Utd angered players, too, among them Johnny Giles, and even now Peace refers to him as “Mr Giles”. Still, how was he going to win round a city that might have been suspicious, and had suffered enough in the name of football already?
“I needed folk to talk to me,” he says, “so yes there was a bit of apprehension, but it was this: could I do Shankly justice? I felt the weight of responsibility. There’s a lot of darkness in my other books and for a change I wanted to write about a good man. I contacted the Shankly family, told them I wasn’t sure if they’d like the idea, but that I really intended the book to be a celebration of their grandfather. It’s a mark of the man, how much he’s revered in Liverpool, that so many helped me.”
We’re talking in Leeds so obviously Peace, 46 – who writes his fiction in a flat close to Tokyo’s Imperial Palace – has been allowed back there. He’s about to head over to Liverpool again and then on to Edinburgh. The first reviews are in and they amount to a game of two halves. A masterpiece, says one. Frankly Mr Shankly deserves better, goes another. Peace’s style is an issue; too repetitive for some (“Ball after ball. Into the box … Ball after ball. Into the box. Again and again. Ball after ball. Into the box. Every second.” For anoraks like me, though, this box is fascinating: a training-ground torture-chamber, built out of wood by the Ayrshire-born former miner, to make the players sweat).
“How I write isn’t for everyone,” admits Peace, “and the first half of this book is hard going.” In total Red or Dead is 270,000 words but could have been even longer. “I’m grateful to my father, among others, for it coming down to the slim, 720-page volume you hold in your hands.”
Early reaction in Liverpool has been good. Ex-Red Willie Stevenson was discussing the book on regional TV only the other night. Stevenson was one of Shankly’s Scottish contingent and there’s a lovely scene describing how the manager, to clinch the signing in Glasgow’s Central Hotel, worked his psychology on the player, who was sipping Courvoisier and smoking a Padron Serie 1926 cigar but cruising in Rangers’ reserves. “Willie very generously said I’d got Shankly’s story 85 per cent right. The family seem to approve, too. It doesn’t matter what the London press say; these comments are a magic shield to me.”
There’s Peace displaying his northern credentials. His team is Huddersfield Town, which Shankly managed before moving to Liverpool in 1959, transforming a struggling Second Division team into a great one, an insular club into an international one. And along the way revolutionising football and – though this didn’t catch on as much as it should – what kind of man a manager should be. “Shankly was a socialist. I remember Sky Sports using a famous quote but, being Sky, they missed off the bit at the end about football being a kind of socialism. To me, that was an example of how the man had been reduced. Summed up by remarks and witticisms, or not in this case.”
It’s difficult to avoid Shanklyisms, though, when they’re triple-stitched into the football tapestry. Glenbuck Cherrypickers. Not a matter of life or death, much more important than that. The red shirt matching the players, the jauntily-worn hat, the hand-jiving on the bench at the 1974 FA Cup final. John – this to the European Cup-winning Jock Stein – you’re immortal! The Robert Burns biog for a bible. Taking the missus to see a reserve game on their wedding anniversary. “I think I know where he got the red shirts – a tailor in Bold Street, Liverpool,” says Peace, who researched for a year. “Shankly had that working-class pride in always being well turned out. My grandfather was like that and my father still is. The trilby Shankly copied from Matt Busby. They were both Jimmy Cagney fans, I believe, and liked to talk out the sides of their mouths, especially down in London.” If the film of the book happens, Peace wants Peter Mullan in the role.
“But I tried to avoid the quotes we all know so well, or at least put them in proper context. The ‘life or death’ one, for instance, was made with regret at not having spent more time with his wife, Ness, and their daughters because of his absolute devotion to football. And this is why the book is the way it is. I wanted it to be physically big. It wasn’t enough, I thought, to say Shankly trained with the team every day for 15 years. I detail every game because of his quote about football being like a river; it never stops. Probably his obsession became my obsession, but as a writer I needed to try and live as much as possible as he had lived.”
Some legends remain. In another tremendous passage from another hotel – Edinburgh’s North British – Shankly takes a walk round new centre-half Ron Yeats and declares him 7ft tall. But I have to tell Peace his book will make Scots greet. Yeats, Stevenson, Ian St John, Billy Liddell, Tommy Lawrence, Peter Cormack, Bobby Graham and poor Jimmy McInnes, the club secretary who hanged himself from the Anfield rafters – there used to be so many Scots at Liverpool, so many in England. Peace sympathises with our sadly diminished status, but what does he think Shankly would make of football now with all its excesses? “I think he’d be saddened. Even in retirement he was ranting about players with swimming pools and two cars who’d won no medals. But deep down he’d still love the game; it was his life.”
Peace says there is a theory Shankly died of a broken heart. Certainly there are scenes of great poignancy and sadness in his book – the Reds hero left to dine alone on a European trip, the passionate believer in the dignity of labour handing his brolly to a working man on a rainy day, Shankly having all the time to wait for the sky to clear. “I don’t believe he did, though. His house was always open to the fans for cups of tea, and small boys would call round wanting him to referee their kickabouts. I believe he was sustained by his people.” Now Peace must get over to Liverpool. I don’t think he’ll need a brolly and reckon the city will be pleased to see him.
MORE INFO: Red or Dead (Faber, £20). David Peace is at the Book Festival tonight at 7pm.
Originally published in The Scotsman