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Not Afraid Of Repetition: David Peace's Red Or Dead Reviewed
Stuart Evers , August 18th, 2013 11:08

In David Peace's Bill Shankly novel, Stuart Evers finds scant comparison beyond the obvious to 2006's The Damned Utd and a great deal more beyond the realms of sporting fixtures to celebrate

David Peace is not afraid of repetition. Repetition underpins and underscores all of his work: names and phrases, sentence constructions, entire paragraphs, they loop and swirl, come back and back and back again. It is repetition that gives his books their staccato rhythms, their hypnotic, insistent force. He uses repetition better than any other writer currently at work.

But in the wake of The Damned Utd – Peace’s bestselling novel, and later successful film, of Brian Clough’s catastrophic time as manager of Leeds United Football Club – Red or Dead could seem a repetition in itself. It is, after all, another novel about football. It is another novel set in that nostalgia honey-trap between the nineteen-fifties and nineteen-eighties. And it is another novel to focus on an iconic football manager – Bill Shankly, a figure perhaps even more beloved than the mercurial Clough. As Peace writes at the beginning of Red or Dead: “Repetition. Repetition, Repetition.”

But while Red or Dead is constructed on endless, uncompromising repetitions, it is not a merely a recycling of the constituent elements that pushed The Damned Utd up the bestseller lists and out into the multiplexes. They share an era and a size-5 ball, but few, if any, sensibilities, narrative modes, or concerns. Even when the two books share the same event – Clough and Shankly meeting in Wembley’s tunnel prior to the 1974 Charity Shield – the outcome is different. The Damned Utd’s Clough records that Shankly ignores him, his eyes ‘Fixed on the future. Fixed on regret.’ However, the Clough of Red or Dead asks: ‘This must bring back some memories for you, sir?’ to which Shankly replies: ‘Oh yes. It does.’ And not just for Bill: for the reader too. These are the memories we have lived for the preceding 500 or-so pages.

Red or Dead opens with Shankly’s appointment as Liverpool manager in 1959 and its first half marches relentlessly towards his retirement in 1974. We know that Bill has a past. He has a wife and two daughters; we know he has been manager of Huddersfield Town. We know that he tried to sign Ron Yeats and Ian St John. We know this, but it doesn’t arrest the feeling that Shankly didn’t properly exist before starting at Anfield. Personal details – fears, sexual desires, physical afflictions, doubts – are ruthlessly excised. Where others have darker motivations, peccadillos, distractions, Bill has football. Only football. Training for the football match. Playing the football match. Watching the football match. Talking about the football match. Training for the next football match . . . ‘There was always a game,’ Peace writes as Shankly gets up from his Blackpool deckchair to have a kick-about with some kids on the beach, ‘always another game.’

And in that first half there is always another game. Another game not more than a couple of pages away. Open the first half of the book at random and the same sentences, the same cadences, the same constructions appear, modulated only by the names of players and of football clubs. ‘On Saturday 24 March, 1962, Preston North End came to Anfield. That afternoon thirty-nine thousand, seven hundred and one folk came, too.’ The prose is clean. Tight. Rhythmic. And it keeps coming. More games. More training sessions. More transfer talk. More football. The same routines, the same scorelines; the same three possibilities: win, lose, draw. Football ‘is a hard, relentless task which goes on and on like a river. There is no time for stopping and resting.’

For almost 500 pages we see Shankly almost exclusively through his relationship with Liverpool Football Club. There is no pissing, shitting or wanking; no dark deeds, villainy or vainglory. The only dirt under Shankly’s fingernails comes from clearing the practice pitches of rocks and stones. He comes home to his wife – ‘In the dark, in the silence’ – and dries the dishes. He cleans the oven. He sets out the breakfast things. He gets up and goes to training, goes to the match. We do not have access to his private thoughts, his intimate self. We do not need it: we know he is always thinking about football, always thinking about Liverpool Football Club.

This monomania could be overwhelming. The relentlessness of the repetition – ‘The coat stuck to his jacket. The jacket stuck to his shirt. The shirt stuck to his vest.’ – the endless surface detail about matches, the extreme restriction on vocabulary (no book of this length, surely, has contained such a limited palate of words) is dizzying, brutalising but also – crucially – mesmerising. Once Peace has established the rhythms, his tics and phrases, the narrative becomes addictive, compulsive. We start looking forward to the next game, like Bill. We take every game as it comes, like Bill. We even notice when the attendance figures are low.

This is not to say that there’s no respite from the football. There are moments of great humour – the curious incident of blacking up Ian St John’s testicles to prove an opponent’s aggression prior to a disciplinary hearing for example – as well as surprising tenderness. The brief glimpses of the relationship between Bill and his wife Ness are both subtle and instructive; they speak of unquestioning love and full acceptance of each other. This small seam of emotional interaction away from the pitch is important. It adds a further layer of engagement with Shankly; it gives us a kind of complicity with him.

The easiest criticism of Red or Dead is that its first half is too long. That we can understand Peace’s Shankly with just edited highlights of his career. This is to mistake the entire novel – to see the first half as mere set up for the emotional turbulence of the second. To understand Shankly, or at least Peace’s iteration of him, one has to share his everyday experience. Through its monotony as much, if not more, than its highs and lows. And as the successes come – first promotion, then the first division title, then the FA Cup – Peace shows that despite the achievements, glory is ephemeral. It is not enough to have won something once; it has to be won time and time again. We keenly feel the violent shudder of regret that Shankly isn’t the first British manager to win the European Cup. And also know that winning it would be nothing without winning it again, and again. The carousel never stops – ‘And so there is no end to it – There is no end to it’ –until, of course, Bill steps off of his own accord.

‘It comes to us all, son.’ – Shankly says at the end of the first half of the novel – ‘And you have to be prepared. You have to be ready, son. Because you have to decide how you will deal with it. Will it be with grace and with dignity? Or will it be with anger and bitterness?’ The time comes to Bill while watching the television with Ness. ‘I decided, love. I’ll go now’ he says. His retirement shocks football, back when football could be shocked. And as readers we are also shocked: we have seen Bill burningly alive through football; how can such a man exist without it? Bill says to Ness that he won’t be leaving the game, just Liverpool. ‘I know that.’ She says. ‘And nor would I ever ask you to. It would be too cruel. Too heartless.’

Peace has said in interviews that he sees Shankly as a kind of saint. And one can see this hagiographic spirit even more keenly in the second half of the novel than the first. If Peace’s Clough was Shakespearean, a kind of whisky-soaked Richard III in a polyester suit, Peace’s Shankly is a biblical and instructional figure; someone to be praised and given thanks for. His acts are of kindness and selflessness.

On the street he thanks people who shake his hand for being fans of Liverpool Football Club. He plays football out at the rec with the local kids. He keeps a stack of photos by the door which he signs for anyone who wants one. Callers of all kinds are given cups of tea by Ness and his undivided attention. He – in one of the stand-out passages of book – lends a working man an umbrella as it pours down outside the café Shankly frequents most days. He is offered other roles at other clubs, but refuses, his loyalty to Liverpool Football Club absolute. He talks at golf clubs and charity events. He answers fan mail and ensures the garden is tidy and the car clean.

But without football, without Liverpool Football Club and their opponents, without the players, there is only Bill. In fact his name appears so many times on some pages that the spread resembles a Bridget Riley canvas, his name creating undulations and waves. The effect is heart-breaking. There is no other word for it. A man who has lived for one thing and one thing only, living without it, if that is living at all.

The second half of the book therefore becomes a reckoning of sorts. Where the passion of the years at Liverpool are finally taken into account. Even Bill himself sees his feet are made of clay, despite his constant good deeds: ‘But during my time, I have always been so single-minded. And so my family has suffered. And I regret that. I regret that Ness has had to bear the brunt of my being away so much.’

As good as decent and as principled as Shankly is, he cannot avoid brushing against ‘anger and bitterness’. He is treated with reticence and chill by his former employer. He does not negotiate the kind of financial package his family deserves. He watches Liverpool Football Club win the 1977 European Cup. He sees Liverpool players too drunk to stand outside the Picton Library where he had paraded the FA Cup a decade or so before and ‘cannot fight back the tears.’ Is he weeping for what should have been, or perhaps what is to come?

As Red or Dead was published, Liverpool Football Club – and particularly their manager, Brendan Rodgers – were embroiled in a toxic war of words with one of their own players, Luis Suarez. In the countless articles and conversations about the situation, one question surfaced over and again: what would Shankly have done. Above- and below-the-line commentators were in agreement: he wouldn’t have stood for a player thinking himself bigger than the club. And yet Red or Dead suggests a different conclusion.

In Red or Dead, Shankly defends his players – notably St John – in several disciplinary hearings despite knowing their guilt. He plays mind games through the media – telling anyone who’ll listen they’ll beat a certain team by a certain number of goals – just as Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho would do three decades later. He deals in hyperbole around his own players, yet can leave them out in the cold, not give them the full pay rise they have been allocated. If we are invited to think that without Shankly the game has become bloated with money and egos, we are also forced to see that this shift is partially down to Shankly’s success, to his monomania. The man who said 'If you are first you are first, if you are second you are nothing' has a shadow legacy, through no fault of his own.

It’s in this intersection between what we wish for and what we deliver, between how we prioritise life and what it means to us that Red or Dead finds its unique space. Yes this is a book about football. Yes, this is a book about Bill Shankly. But this is also a book about the choices by which we live and die, the moments that make us feel alive, and those that choke our souls. It is a masterpiece. Make no mistake of that. A masterpiece. And that is something that bears repeating.

David Peace's Red or Dead and Stuart Evers' If This Is Home are available now published by Faber & Faber and Picador respectively