Football is always said to be “the beautiful game” or a “religious cult” and now there is a book that wants to prove both of those statements correct. David Peace’s previous works tend to focus on the darker side of the north of England, masculinity and the neoliberal individualism that was seen in the 1980s; he found extraordinary fame with his Red Riding Quartet (1999-2002), and more recently, The Damned Utd (2006), a fictional account of manager Brian Clough’s devastating 44 days at Leeds F.C. Now, in Red or Dead, he writes about another football manager: Bill Shankly, the heroic manager of Liverpool F.C. and his 15 years in charge of the club.
The story starts in 1959 and finishes in 1981. Shankly agrees to manage Liverpool for a salary of £2,500 (a frighteningly small sum compared with the amount a manager in the Premier League receives nowadays). Red or Dead, like many of Peace’s novels, is concerned centrally with the 1970s, and reflects the British political atmosphere at the time. The book’s title is deliberately ambivalent, possessing a double meaning: a Liverpudlian chant fans use to declare their undying support to the club, and a socialist’s chant of defiance.
Peace’s writing style in Red or Dead is so highly rhythmic that it puts me in mind of nursery rhymes. Peace seems to want us to feel every emotion and thought that crosses Shankly’s mind by putting the reader through the same process. Textual reiteratations and the removal third person pronouns, such as ‘he’ or ‘she’ reinforce this desire; you can casually turn to any page and find certain words and names repeated: “In the dark… In the night” or “Bill forced open the fingers of his right hand. Bill raised his right arm. Bill brought his right hand over to the left sleeve of his jacket. Bill pulled up the left sleeve of his jacket. Bill stared down at his watch.” Such repetitions become ingrained in your mind.
I am a fan of both football and David Peace’s novels; I am, probably, also the target audience for this book. However, I’m not entirely sure many more people can be persuaded to undertake the reading of this. I suspect, however, that Peace also knows this; typically, if you’re not a man who enjoys hearing about football from the 1960s and 1970s, this subject is not likely to tempt you.
The book is far too long. With just over 700 pages and the constant descriptions of Liverpool league and cup games, only a fan might not find it extremely tiresome. The most fascinating parts occur after Shankly has retired in the second half of the book. Shankly becomes a radio host and asks to have the Prime Minister Harold Wilson on, a man whose socialist principles he admires on his show. They chat, they discuss politics and poetry; yet Wilson at that time was facing a huge political backlash, health problems and regular strikes. These chapters reveal more about Shankly and Wilson as individuals outside football and politics. Peace superbly portrays how normal they probably were behind their fame.
Shankly, was a former Scottish miner who remained a supporter of the worker’s movement throughout his entire life; he considered himself a socialist right up to his death, and he viewed his style of football as similar to a form of socialism. As Peace writes, “He didn’t even like to think about money. Bill Shankly knew you needed a roof over your head”. In the portrait of Shankly, Red or Dead presents itself as a nostalgic reminder of what British society – and football – was like, before it became corrupted by excessive wealth and cold individualism. I am sure Peace’s title will appeal to those who remember those times before the Thatcherite period of the 1980s fondly.