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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The Women's March against Trump matters – but only if we keep fighting

We won’t win the battle for progressive ideas if we don’t battle in the first place.

Arron Banks, UKIP-funder, Brexit cheerleader and Gibraltar-based insurance salesman, took time out from Trump's inauguration to tweet me about my role in tomorrow's Women’s March Conservative values are in the ascendancy worldwide. Thankfully your values are finished. . . good”.

Just what about the idea of women and men marching for human rights causes such ill will? The sense it is somehow cheeky to say we will champion equality whoever is in office in America or around the world. After all, if progressives like me have lost the battle of ideas, what difference does it make whether we are marching, holding meetings or just moaning on the internet?

The only anti-democratic perspective is to argue that when someone has lost the argument they have to stop making one. When political parties lose elections they reflect, they listen, they learn but if they stand for something, they don’t disband. The same is true, now, for the broader context. We should not dismiss the necessity to learn, to listen, to reflect on the rise of Trump – or indeed reflect on the rise of the right in the UK  but reject the idea that we have to take a vow of silence if we want to win power again.

To march is not to ignore the challenges progressives face. It is to start to ask what are we prepared to do about it.

Historically, conservatives have had no such qualms about regrouping and remaining steadfast in the confidence they have something worth saying. In contrast, the left has always been good at absolving itself of the need to renew.

We spend our time seeking the perfect candidates, the perfect policy, the perfect campaign, as a precondition for action. It justifies doing nothing except sitting on the sidelines bemoaning the state of society.

We also seem to think that changing the world should be easier than reality suggests. The backlash we are now seeing against progressive policies was inevitable once we appeared to take these gains for granted and became arrogant and exclusive about the inevitability of our worldview. Our values demand the rebalancing of power, whether economic, social or cultural, and that means challenging those who currently have it. We may believe that a more equal world is one in which more will thrive, but that doesn’t mean those with entrenched privilege will give up their favoured status without a fight or that the public should express perpetual gratitude for our efforts via the ballot box either.  

Amongst the conferences, tweets and general rumblings there seem three schools of thought about what to do next. The first is Marxist  as in Groucho revisionism: to rise again we must water down our principles to accommodate where we believe the centre ground of politics to now be. Tone down our ideals in the hope that by such acquiescence we can eventually win back public support for our brand – if not our purpose. The very essence of a hollow victory.

The second is to stick to our guns and stick our heads in the sand, believing that eventually, when World War Three breaks out, the public will come grovelling back to us. To luxuriate in an unwillingness to see we are losing not just elected offices but the fight for our shared future.

But what if there really was a third way? It's not going to be easy, and it requires more than a hashtag or funny t-shirt. It’s about picking ourselves up, dusting ourselves down and starting to renew our call to arms in a way that makes sense for the modern world.

For the avoidance of doubt, if we march tomorrow and then go home satisfied we have made our point then we may as well not have marched at all. But if we march and continue to organise out of the networks we make, well, then that’s worth a Saturday in the cold. After all, we won’t win the battle of ideas, if we don’t battle.

We do have to change the way we work. We do have to have the courage not to live in our echo chambers alone. To go with respect and humility to debate and discuss the future of our communities and of our country.

And we have to come together to show there is a willingness not to ask a few brave souls to do that on their own. Not just at election times, but every day and in every corner of Britain, no matter how difficult it may feel.

Saturday is one part of that process of finding others willing not just to walk a mile with a placard, but to put in the hard yards to win the argument again for progressive values and vision. Maybe no one will show up. Maybe not many will keep going. But whilst there are folk with faith in each other, and in that alternative future, they’ll find a friend in me ready to work with them and will them on  and then Mr Banks really should be worried.