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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Did Titantic do more for climate change than Leonardo DiCaprio’s new documentary?

Sex, icebergs and individual plight: the actor’s earlier outing teaches us more about vast disasters than his new docufilm about global warming’s impact, Before the Flood.

“Now you know there was a man named Jack Dawson and that he saved me . . . in every way that a person can be saved.” Or did he? For Titanic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, there is one way in which Jack never did rescue Rose: from the threat of climate catastrophe. 

Over the last 15 years, DiCaprio has made the issue a personal mission. Yet even in his role as UN climate ambassador, he stills feels far from heroic:

“If the UN really knew how I feel, how pessimistic I am about our future . . . I mean to be honest, they may have picked the wrong guy.”

So begins his new documentary, Before the Flood. A quest for answers on climate change, the film sees Leo racing around the world, marvelling at the sound of endangered whales, despairing at the destruction caused by tar-sands – “it looks like Mordor” – and interviewing a series of concerned experts, from professors to Barack Obama to the Pope.

There are plenty of naysayers to stand in his way and put him down. “Who better to educate world leaders on made-up climate change and a crisis that doesn't exist, than an actor with zero years of scientific training?” mocks one commentator from Fox News.

But if DiCaprio can gather enough evidence to believe in himself – AND believe that there are viable solutions out there – then so can we. Or so the story arc promises. His journey thus stands as a guide for our own; a self-education that will lead to salvation for all. 

It's all a little messianic. The film is even named after a biblical painting. And will those who don't already know who DiCaprio is even care? 

The sad fact is that, while DiCaprio’s lasting popularity still owes so much Titanic, the 1997 box-office smash that made his name, his new documentary fails to recapture the dramatic wisdom that put him there. It doesn’t even quip about the icebergs.

This is an oversight. Titanic didn’t win 11 academy awards for nothing. As well as a must-see rite of passage (pun intended) and soundtrack for infinite school discos, it taught me something invaluable about storytelling. Though I was not initially a DiCaprio fan, over the years I’ve come to accept that my lasting love of the film is inseparable from my emotional investment in Leo, or at least in his character, Jack. What Titanic showed so brilliantly was that the fastest way to empathise with suffering on a vast scale – be it a sinking ship or a sinking planet – is to learn to care for the fate of one or two individuals involved.

Every part of Jack and Rose's story is thus intimately linked with the story of the ship. Even that famed sex scene gains its erotic force not from the characters alone, but from their race through the blazing engine room (situated as it is between the foreplay of the naked portrait and the famous post-coital ending in the back of the cab).

And such carefully crafted storytelling isn't only essential to great entertainment but to great activism too. It can literally inspire action – as evidenced by fans’ desperate attempts to prove that both Jack and Rose could have climbed to safety aboard the floating piece of wood.

So would Before the Flood have been better if it had been a little bit more like Titanic and less like An Inconvenient Truth? Yes. And does that mean we should make climate films about epic polar bear love stories instead? Not exactly. 

There are many powerful documentaries out there that make you emotionally invested in the lives of those experiencing the consequences of our indirect (fossil fuel-burning) actions. Take Virunga, a heart-wrenching insight into the struggle of those protecting eastern Congo’s national park.

Sadly, Before the Flood is not one of them. Its examples of climate change – from Beijing air pollution to coral reef destruction – are over-familiar and under-explored. Instead of interviewing a Chinese official with a graph on his iPad, I would have preferred visiting a solar-panel factory worker and meeting their family, who are perhaps suffering from the effects of the smog in a way I can't yet imagine.

If you want a whistlestop tour of all things climate change then this necessary and urgent film is the movie for you. But those hoping it will give new depth to climate activism will be disappointed.

DiCaprio's distant relationship with the effects of climate change leave him stranded at the level of a narrator. He makes for a great elderly Rose, but we need a Jack.

Before The Flood is in limited theatres from 21 October and will be shown on National Geographic on Sunday 30 October.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.