Red or Dead
By David Peace
Faber & Faber, August 2013
No socialist in 60 years of British life has had more followers than Bill Shankly; no-one on the left has had greater success.
Taking over as manager of Liverpool Football Club in 1959, with his team struggling in the second division, by his retirement in 1974 Shankly had guided Liverpool to three league titles, two FA cups and the club’s first European trophy, the UEFA cup.
He built the structure for the team that would, over the next decade, go on to win a further four European Cups, and six League titles.
This was a domination, at home and abroad, that no other team in the long history of English football has come close to matching.
Part of Shankly’s charisma came from the way he related his brand of football to a philosophy of collective endeavour, saying: “The socialism I believe in is everyone working for each other, everyone having a share of the rewards. It’s the way I see football, the way I see life.”
Shankly kitted his Liverpool side all in red. “Chairman Mao has never seen a greater show of red strength”, he said after one performance.
Shankly insisted that the key to victory was the passion of the supporters. The first football “fanatics” to be seen on television were the Liverpool fans, swaying on the terraces, in their club scarves — joking and singing.
Few writers could be better placed than David Peace to bring Shankly into fiction. His Red Riding Quartet told the story of the 1970s and early '80s with a radical bleakness. In GB84, Peace explored the mindset of Thatcher’s go-betweens, the shadowy figures who financed the efforts to break the miners’ strike.
Peace has also written previously about football, with The Damned United telling the story of Brian Clough’s 44-day spell at Leeds. Writing in a style where myth, history and the occult mix, Peace is arguably the most ambitious novelist in Britain today.
Even Peace, however, struggles to bring Shankly’s story successfully into fiction in his newly released Red or Dead.
A reader of a newspaper may content themselves with a generic report of their team’s latest game, for the paper’s treatment of the highlights is likely to last no more than a minute’s reading, but a novel demands that the writing holds the reader’s interest for hundreds of pages at a time. Peace didn’t have this problem in The Damned United as Brian Clough led Leeds for only four League games.
Shankly, by contrast, led Liverpool for over 750 games; and his triumphs were the product of long campaigns with his Reds pulling ahead only at the end.
Peace’s style exaggerates the humdrum nature of the games. The attendance numbers are given. He conveys the chants of the crowd, and there are games for which the word “LI-VER-POOL” appears more than 200 times in 1000 words. Reports of home fixtures end: “Liverpool drew … At home, at Anfield.”
There are certain advantages to this way of writing. The evolution of tactics and increased fitness of the players themselves have tended to make football a much more cramped and repetitive game.
I remember watching even the Liverpool sides of the early '80s for whom every attack would begin with goalkeeper Bruce Grobelaar rolling the ball to defender Alan Hansen, and the defenders passing it to each other, and if needed back to Grobelaar.
To write about football in a way which makes the mundane appear fantastic is actually to do your reader a disservice and patronise them.
Peace’s writing is at times beige: a dull and uninspiring background. By allowing some games to be uneventful, Peace gives himself the space to build up to more important matches, as, for example, the away game at Hillsborough in 1963, where, Peace suggests, the Liverpool fan anthem “You’ll Never Walk Alone” was first sung.
In Peace’s account, Shankly is aching with the fatigue of defeat. The song is sung as Shankly returns to his team’s dressing room and begins to heal. In the context of the mundane, the special is made to appear truly extraordinary.
Any reader will grasp the effect Peace seeks; and yet the writing at times is consciously artless.
A second problem Peace faces, and only partially resolves, is the character of Shankly. According to Peace’s account, Liverpool’s manager had no excesses, was well read outside football, loved his wife selflessly, and carried some of the burden of housework for her.
Shankly genuinely believed that the best player in his team, or even he himself, was worth less than the most passionate of his supporters.
To win his historic wager on the capacity of Liverpool’s working-class population to remake their team and the game through their passionate support, he was selfless with his own time, thanking supporters with gifts of tickets and, on occasion, his own clothes.
Shankly lived in a modest working-class home and barely negotiated himself a pay rise. He tried to resist in every way the creeping commercialism of his times. Everything he believed, he lived.
In an age where working class heroes are rare, Shankly’s fictional biographer faces a challenge. The Shankly of this novel was better than anyone any of us are ever likely to meet. He does not develop as a character, he has no demons to overcome, his joy is not the source of his subsequent despair.
The usual response of writers to a character of this sort has been to invent a thwarted admirer, so that the tension between the two protagonists give the plot its energy. In real life, Shankly had no antagonist; history supplies no-one for the author to develop into a rival.
Peace’s answer is a different one. If the story has a motor, it is Shankly’s own sense that the game is unforgiving of the old, and the determination with which he gets rid of successive players on whom he had previously relied.
This provides a theme building up to the final quarter of the book in which Shankly is retired, tries and fails to find a new role for himself at the club and is rebuffed. Shankly suffers a real, if modest, moment of incomprehension and bitterness.
Generally, though, little goes wrong. There will be readers who find the book passionless in consequence, lacking the dark forebodings of Peace’s previous historical novels.
Was Shankly the greatest manager? Long ago, in the different context of cricket, CLR James compared the greatness of Donald Bradman and WG Grace, pointing out that for all Bradman’s statistical triumphs, he did not change the relationship between cricket and society, built nothing that lasted and achieved only for himself.
Shankly’s sole competitor, on this test, is Alex Ferguson. The recently retired Manchester United manager was in pole position to profit from the Premier League era, with all the subtle ways in which it concentrates resources upwards the Sky TV deals, the overcompensation of success in the Champions League and the escalating proportion of club turnover the clubs are required to shell out on their players.
Shankly’s achievements a kind of fan culture, the Boot Room, European success came in a shorter period than Ferguson was allowed. Their meaning was rooted in the values of the left, just as the pro-New Labour Ferguson was the perfect manager for a neoliberal age.
Shankly’s socialism was always vague. It was, after all, primarily a footballing rather than a political concept.
He undoubtedly had an idea of the potential power of class loyalty, but his socialism was vague enough to take in a general feeling of goodwill to individuals as different as Mao and Labour PM Harold Wilson.
There are moments in this novel where the idea has knees and elbows. At times, Shankly’s well-meaning socialism excludes those who are not worthy of the label.
In Romania, his hosts refuse to serve Liverpool with the drinks that have been ordered, and Shankly assumes their food or drink is being tampered with. He shouts: “You are a disgrace to International Socialism. You are a disgrace to your party.”
Would Liverpool revive if only a new Shankly could be found? Some of the tricks attributed by Peace to Shankly such as negotiating a potential 100 pounds pay rise for all his players at the end of one season, then offering each player individually the unbelievably generous sum of 80 pounds (far more than any of them had expected) could not work today.
Perhaps Peace makes too little of the source of Liverpool’s transfer wealth. They were never the richest club in English football, nor the highest payers, but unlike today the club was at least financially competitive.
Peace lets one scene with an accountant introduce the wealth of the Moores’ family, who owned the club for 50 years. A darker book might have made a little more of the compromises this must have involved.
The team’s progress was made possible in part by the loss of jobs in Liverpool, by the pre-history, as it were, of the terrible unemployment of the 1980s. The fans’ passion did not come from nowhere, but was a displaced form of class struggle against the perfidy of the regional and national capitals, Manchester and London.
The feelings of anger and bitterness are still there. The dockers are fewer, however; socialism cannot be achieved simply by replacing the footage of the 1970s, on an ever-faster speed, until at one point the steel industry is saved, the car plants restored, and the Thatcher-Cameron hybrid defeated.
There will be strikes in future, including mass strikes. But when the class moves next, it will be a different set of people, with different ideas, in different groups to the ones of 40 years ago.