Book Festival: David Peace | Iain MacWhirter
Edinburgh International Book Festival Scotsman review: David Robinson reports on events featuring David Peace and Iain MacWhirter
Intense, intent, in the Studio Theatre Tent. Two writers there and a chair. And the chair speaks. And the chair says, Why are we here, intense, intent, in the Studio Theatre Tent? To celebrate a life, he says. The life of Bill.
And the chair says that’s why he’s there. For Bill. For Shanks. For the leader of the Reds. To celebrate. And here’s John, who knew Bill. Knew him well. Who wrote a book, the book of Bill And by the way, here’s David Peace. And he knows John, knows him well, and he likes John, but did not know Bill, though he has written another book of Bill. Not a life of Bill, but stories. Stories.
And me? Me, I’m getting confused in here, in the tent, the Studio Theatre Tent. Because I’m here to hear Mr Peace, even though when he reads, it sounds like this, like a chant, like a poem, like a rant, like a song gone wrong. And football? It’s more important than that, obviously.
And all I am saying, is give him a chance.
In plainer English, if you went last night to Charlotte Square expecting to hear David Peace talk about Red or Dead, his novel (written in his habitual incantatory style) about Bill Shankly, you’d probably would have found yourself hearing more from Shankly’s biographer, John Roberts. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it was frustrating beyond belief.
Nothing against John Roberts, who was added to the programme, or against the inept chair, who forgot to introduce himself and ignored the audience’s questions in favour of his own. But Peace (who virtually had to introduce himself) was the man the audience had come to see.
What was it like writing about a good man after the darkness of his previous novels (The Damned United, the Red Riding Quartet, the Japanese trilogy)? Was he still only planning to write 12 novels and then quit? Why? What did he find the hardest thing to understand about Shankly? In terms of answers to questions like that we hardly got a sniff at goal.
Yet in an odd and unpredictable way that occasionally happens at book festival events, sometimes it worked too. Peace read a great piece about how Shankly used to phone up Leeds manager Don Revie the night before a big match and lavishly extol the talents of the Reds (“Well, it’s just not fair is it, Don?”) Straightaway, Roberts leapt in to confirm the story. “One time he rang up Revie and he started saying nice things about Leeds. ‘That Bremner’s some player,’ he told Revie. And then he rang him back five minutes later. ‘When I said your Bremner’s a good player, I don’t mean to say he’s a patch on Tommy Smith.”
Anecdotes like that underlined Peace’s portrait of Shankly as a driven, but compellingly benign man (the Shankly who would give young Scousers a lift back on the team bus, and thank them for their support; who would, in retirement, play football with the kids who rang the bell of his semi just across the road from Everton’s training ground and asked him for a game). So too did questions from the audience – from a pharmacist who used to serve Shankly and was rather terrified of him, and from an Evertonian relieved to discover that his club’s friendly relationship with Shankly after his shock retirement in 1974was true and not just a football myth).
When Roberts wandered off, unrestrained, into other anodyne football talk (Beckham, Abramovich etc), however, the audience grew increasingly restive. Peace was too respectful and polite to rein him in. Or was it because Roberts is, he revealed at the end, a character in the novel himself? (Incidentally, Peace is one of the few writers I’ve ever heard warning audiences that they might not enjoy his book. “You might have liked that piece I just read,” he pointed out, “but I feel I should tell you that I’ve got pages of Shankly just washing the car.”
Earlier, Iain Macwhirter‘s event had a similar structural strangeness, although one that ended up working oddly well. Talking about his book (and TV series) Road to Referendum, he was quizzed on its conclusions (essentially that we all – even, privately, the SNP top brass – want Devo Max) not by those who disagree with them but by Ruth Wishart and Andrew Wilson, who support them. Or is it just that I’m heartily sick of predictable party political pointscoring?
Originally published in The Scotsman