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Interview: Author David Peace on his Bill Shankly novel

At the launch of the Durham Book Festival, author David Peace talked to David Whetstone about Bill Shankly and Gordon Burn

James Maloney Author David Peace, who has written a book about Bill Shankly
Author David Peace, who has written a book about Bill Shankly

There have been hundreds – no, thousands – of football books, but there has never been one quite like Red or Dead by David Peace.

Well, that’s not strictly true. There is one book that is like it in many respects. It is called The Damned Utd and it is by... David Peace.

The Damned Utd was a book I picked up and couldn’t put down. What it appeared to offer was the world as seen by Brian Clough, the football manager who, back in the 1970s, was so much more besides – a sharp-witted, larger-than-life personality with views about much more than what happened on the pitch.

The book, which was made into a successful film called The Damned United, was set during Clough’s short but disastrous spell at the helm of Leeds United after he – ill advisedly – stepped into the big boots vacated by Don Revie.

It was – is – a novel but it felt plausible, very much like the truth. OK, former Leeds player Johnny Giles didn’t like it and successfully took legal action, but many readers loved it. I loved it.

And now comes Red or Dead, worming its way into the head of another footballing legend. This time not Clough – the Middlesbrough-born one-time player for his home town club and for Sunderland – but Bill Shankly, manager of Liverpool from 1959 to 1974, the man who took the club to the first division and glory.

Scot, socialist, workaholic, perfectionist... all might have described Shankly who would have been 100 next month if he’d lived.

David Peace tells the Shankly story over more than 700 pages of highly distinctive prose. Some might call it windy, repetitive; I’d call it mesmerising, poetic.

It begins as it means to go on: “In the winter-time, in the night-time, they remembered him. And then they came to him. In the winter-time, in the night-time...”

‘They’ are the top brass of struggling Liverpool Football Club, heading for Huddersfield on October 17, 1959 with a proposition to put to the manager of Huddersfield Town. You know who.

At the launch of Durham Book Festival, where David Peace read from the novel and also announced the shortlist for the inaugural Gordon Burn Prize, the author explained: “In a way, for me, footballing memories began in 1974 and I suppose that’s the connection between The Damned Utd and Red or Dead.

“I was seven years old. The first game my dad took me to was when Brian Clough brought Leeds United to Huddersfield Town for a pre-season friendly.

“That was the year Clough went to Leeds and Bill Shankly suddenly resigned from Liverpool. That was the starting point for both books.”

Growing up, said the author, he hadn’t been particularly aware of the details of what Bill Shankly did.

“But I did feel he was, in many ways, being reduced to a series of witticisms. I felt there was more to him. That was what drew me to him.”

Reading about him, talking to people who knew him and listening to him, Peace saw the Scot’s socialism coming to the fore.

“It may have been a very simplistic form of socialism but it came to inform every aspect of his life and every decision he made inside or outside football.

“For me, the title is a play on the red of Liverpool Football Club but also the red of socialism. Bound up with the football is an examination of the kind of socialism that my grandfather and my father grew up with.

“Shankly’s favourite book was a biography of Robbie Burns. He saw him as a socialist.”

Conscious of the unintended upset his Clough book had caused to members of the late manager’s family – and to Johnny Giles – Peace spoke to lots of people on Merseyside and elsewhere about Shankly before writing a single word.

To his delight, he was also lent tape-recorded interviews of Shankly which he listened to in Tokyo, hearing not only the famous voice but the background sounds of his wife, Ness, making tea or bustling about. All this he wove into the pages of the novel.

Red or Dead is a football novel right down to its structure, divided into two halves and 90 chapters.

It may be the last football book David Peace ever writes. Next out will be the third part of his acclaimed Tokyo trilogy, following Tokyo Year Zero in 2007 and Occupied City in 2009.

Already he has demonstrated his versatility. The equally admired Red Riding Quartet – set against the backdrop of the Yorkshire Ripper murders – has been adapted for television with the film rights held by Ridley Scott.

Meanwhile GB84, recalling the year-long miners’ strike, is hailed by many as one of the best books about the bitter dispute.

David Peace was in Durham to talk about another man, as admired in his field as Shankly was in his.

He dedicated Red or Dead to Gordon Burn, the Newcastle-born writer who is commemorated by the new literary prize whose winner will be announced during the Durham Book Festival in October.

Burn wrote fiction spun from fact, putting real-life figures such as Alma Cogan, Peter Sutcliffe and Margaret Thatcher into his novels – much as David Peace has done in his football books.

“I used to work in Dewsbury Market and in about 1985 or 1986 I came across Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son (Burn’s 1984 book about Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper),” said Peace.

“I was a bit obsessed with the Yorkshire Ripper and this book, which was non fiction, had the emotional impact of fact.

“His novel Alma Cogan, which was fiction, had non fiction’s clarity of prose. He was the writer I most admired and I learned a lot from him.

“It was one of the reasons I was later so happy to be published by Faber. Through Faber I had the opportunity to meet Gordon and we became friends. His death (in 2009, aged 61, of cancer) was a tremendous shock.

“This book is dedicated to him – although I’m not sure what he would have said. He wasn’t a great fan of long books.”

In Durham David Peace chatted on stage to his editor at Faber, Lee Brackstone, who was also Gordon Burn’s editor.

There was a pleasing symmetry about the arrangement, a bit like the two halves of Red or Dead – which is the shops now, priced at £20 hardback, £12.99 ebook.

The winner of the first Gordon Burn Prize will be announced during an event at Durham Town Hall on Saturday, October 19.

The shortlisted authors have all been deemed by the judges – Mark Lawson, Deborah Orr and David Peace himself – to have produced work true to the spirit of Burn’s own writing.

For details of Durham Book Festival visit www.durhambookfestival.com


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer