Red or Dead by David Peace: From football to the battle against age, the war against death

Bill Shankly transformed Liverpool football club from second-flight also rans into giants. His resignation, after 15 years in charge, remains a riddle.

Red or Dead
David Peace
Faber & Faber, 736pp, £20
 
Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. They’re the first three words of Red or Deadand repetition is soon established as both a theme and a style. The first scene depicts an unnamed man entering an office and confessing to “a voice from the shadows” that “the strain had proved too much”. In context, it seems clear that the man is Phil Taylor, the manager whose resignation in 1959 led to the appointment of Bill Shankly as manager of Liverpool and the transformation of the football club over the next 15 years from second-flight also-rans into giants. Yet the archetypal nature of the description suggests that this is something universal, that as one man feels the strain another rises to take his place, that the cycle turns as inevitably as one season follows another.
 
In David Peace’s other book about a football manager, The Damned Utd, the endless circling evoked Brian Clough’s paranoia as his drink-sozzled brain tried to process that, after moving to Leeds United, he was trying to work with players he’d spent the previous decade condemning and that they, not surprisingly, didn’t take kindly to his arrival. Shankly has little of Clough’s darkness and so, in this book, the repetitions – though they do represent the coach’s natural speech patterns – are simply a fact of life, and perhaps particularly a life in football.
 
Liverpool Football Club had drawn one-all with Scunthorpe United. Away from home, away from Anfield. On Saturday 27 January 1962, Liverpool Football Club went to Boundary Park, Oldham. And Liverpool Football Club beat Oldham Athletic twoone on the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. One week after that Brighton and Hove Albion came to Anfield, Liverpool. And Liverpool Football Club beat Brighton and Hove Albion three-one. One week later, Liverpool beat Bury Football Club three-nil.
 
And so on, for each of his 15 years at Liverpool. It’s true that the eye does usually skip over such passages, but then this is the unacknowledged fact of football: it’s one game after another, without respite. “Whilst you love football,” Shankly wrote in his autobiography, “it is a hard, relentless task that goes on and on like a river.”
 
At the press conference where he announced his shock resignation in 1974, Shankly described how “being a manager is often like steering a ship through a minefield”. There is, however, one crucial difference, which is that a minefield has an end, a boundary. Football just goes on. The Spaniard Juanma Lillo has said that each trophy, each success, is “a victory over the repetition”, but it is only a temporary victory. “A realised dream,” the great Ukrainian coach Valeriy Lobanovskyi noted, “ceases to be a dream.” Win one cup and soon there is another that needs winning. The relentlessness has consequences, most horrifyingly the suicide of Liverpool’s stressed club secretary between the two legs of the European Cup semi-final in 1965.
 
What Red or Dead suggests is that the repetition that is overt in football – one more game, one more season – underpins life outside football, too. It’s not just the churn of matches, the cycle of training, that is described with numbing circularity. Every night Shankly sets the table for breakfast: “Bill went to the drawer. Bill opened the drawer. Bill took out the tablecloth. Bill closed the drawer. Bill walked over to the table. Bill spread the cloth over the table . . .” laying out the knives, the forks, the spoons, the bowls, the glasses, the salt and the pepper pots, the jar of honey and the jar of marmalade, the butter dish and the orange juice. But it is through a change in the routine that we realise his daughters have left home, and in laying the table for one when his wife, Ness, has to go into hospital that his terror of being alone betrays itself to us.
 
The meticulousness is part of Shankly. Although Peace does at times hint at the man’s messianic qualities, his success was routed through incremental improvement and, yes, repetition. He didn’t dream bigger than any other manager of the age, he dreamed harder. He didn’t arrive at Liverpool and apply some magical formula: he just worked with greater energy and in more detail, his belief in the value of industry hammered into him during his childhood years in the Ayrshire coalfield. Meeting Harold Wilson, who as MP for Huyton stood tall with Shankly and the Beatles in the great Liverpool resurgence of the 1960s, he railed against unemployment and yet that was precisely what his decision to retire consigned him to, at the age of 60.
 
In 1959 he had walked up and down the training centre at Melwood with his coaching staff, picking up stones and weeding, making the pitches fit for the team he intended to build. By 1974, he was performing the same action alone in his small garden in West Derby. Once a paragraph of his life conveyed a dozen matches, each watched by tens of thousands of singing fans; after retirement it conveyed him washing his car.
 
Everything comes back to that decision to retire. The book is split into two parts: “Shankly Among the Scousers”, which begins with his arrival at Anfield, and “Every Day is Sunday”, which begins with his departure. In the first, Shankly, if not always happy, at least has a purpose; in the second, he is disillusioned and resentful of the club he made great. He does not want to intrude and yet he wishes he were part of it, insisting that there has to be a clean break but feeling slighted when his immediate successor, his former assistant Bob Paisley, asks him to stay away from the training ground. Given how inaccessible modern footballers are to fans, there is something endearing about his willingness to talk to everybody, to invite anybody in for a chat, even to play football in the street with kids who knock on his door, but there is also a loneliness there.
 
So why did he retire? That is the question that lies at the heart of the book and the riddle that lies at the heart of Shankly’s life. That he felt tired is not in doubt, nor is the fact that, by beating Newcastle 3-0 in the 1974 FA Cup final with a stunning display of possession football, they had reached some kind of apotheosis. But the implication of the book is that Ness’s illness, though she recovered, left him aware of mortality and made him want to enjoy life and spend time with his wife.
 
But, in retiring, he lost a lot of his reason for being. “Older and older, weaker and weaker,” the fictional Shankly reflects after defeat in the FA Cup final in 1971. “Bill knew that was the battle,” Peace writes. “That was the war. The battle against age, the war against death . . . The battle you could not win, the war you could never win. But the battle you must try to fight . . . Bill knew you had to try to beat death. You had to try, you had to try.”
 
Like Taylor before him, like countless players he had to move on, Shankly reached a point where he had to listen to the voice in the shadows. He came to regret it, but he did so on his terms, with the club on a high.
 
Jonathan Wilson is the editor of the Blizzard, the football quarterly 
Living the dream: Shankly, whose decision to retire from Liverpool after 15 years remains a riddle. Photograph: Liverpool FC via Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.