SHANKLY 100 - The RAWK interview with David Peace, author of 'Red or Dead'

Posted by Yorkykopite on September 2, 2013, 09:40:25 AM

An interview with David Peace, author of 'Red or Dead'

‘Red of Dead’, David Peace’s fictional account of the life of Bill Shankly has been reviewed by MichaelA elsewhere on RAWK. Michael’s a big fan of the work – and so am I. Below is an interview I conducted with David Peace after reading the book. Many thanks to David for agreeing to do this, for the good folk at RAWK Towers for suggesting I did it, and for Anna Pallai at Faber for helping to set the interview up.

Just a little word before we begin. I know a lot of RAWKites have already read the book, or are currently turning its pages. The interview doesn’t contain any major spoilers (unless you don’t know that Liverpool FC won leagues and cups under Shanks), but it does refer to certain episodes and events in the book in some detail. Some of these you’ll already know about simply because they have become part of the Shankly folklore; others you probably won’t. So, beware.

What David Peace has achieved is a brilliant fictional portrayal of a dedicated man. Shankly was not only a great man, according to David, but a good man too, which is something much harder to be. As you read through the book you’ll be amazed and gratified at the amount of research that’s gone into the work. It isn’t just the major stuff that the writer gets right. It’s the little stuff that, if you get wrong, spoils the whole. So David knows, for example, that the travelling Kop occupied the Stretford End in the 1971 FA Cup semi v Everton. He knows that Shanks was accosted by a jubilant supporter dressed in a white boiler suit at the end of the ’74 Cup Final (we’re an anal lot, us footy fans). He also knows about Shankly’s reverence for men like Tom Finney and Matt Busby.

I hope you enjoy the book as much as I did. I couldn’t honestly think of a reason why you wouldn’t. I guarantee you’ll read whole sections of it as if you were born in Glenbuck.

Here’s the interview.

*The first question is ‘why Shankly’?

The book actually began with a phone call from Mike Jefferies who many LFC supporters might know from his role in the Dear Mr Hicks video. Mike called to say how much he had enjoyed The Damned Utd and had I ever considered writing a script about Bill Shankly. Before Mike had even finished his question, I had already said yes. That’s not like me as I usually hum and haw about things. But – and it might sound very dramatic or pretentious – it was as if Shankly had been sat in the room all along and I had not noticed him. I support Huddersfield Town and had grown up with the stories from my grandfather and father about what a great man Bill Shankly had been. He had also featured in The Damned Utd and, in fact, if you take off the original cover of the first edition, there he is, with his hand on his heart. But more than that, I had been wanting to write a different kind of book for a while; my previous books had all been very dark and very critical of corruption, politics and power. But instead of simply criticising things, I wanted to offer an alternative for a change. A different way of living, a different way of thinking. And that to me is Bill Shankly.

*I think that the first reaction of many Liverpool supporters when they heard a writer had chosen Shankly as his subject was an ambivalent one. On the one hand they were excited because there’s still an immense appetite for all things Shankly, even among those too young to have known him. ‘Shankly Lives Forever’ after all, as the banner on the Kop had it the week he died. On the other hand there’s a certain anxiety. He’s ours. We worship him. We feel protective towards his legacy. An outsider will get him wrong etc. Were you aware of the strength of feeling about the man before you began? If so did it affect the way you dealt with your subject?

Yes, I was very much aware of the affection and reverence for Shankly among Liverpool supporters and on Merseyside, generally. And so I did feel a great degree of apprehension and also responsibility; to make sure I did justice to the man, his life and his work.

*Do you generally have an audience in mind when you write? And did you for this novel?

This is a tricky one because, to be honest, it is almost impossible to imagine who – if anyone – will read the books. But – and this relates to the last two questions as well – I felt, and I may well be wrong, that outside of Liverpool Football Club and Merseyside, Shankly’s legacy was being reduced to a few anecdotes and witticisms and that the reality of what he had achieved  - together with everyone at the club, especially the supporters -  was being lost to the wider British public. Especially younger people, such as my son who is 16. And so, I suppose, I was writing more for people who did not support LFC and did not know the story of the rise of Liverpool Football Club and also then the resignation and the retirement of Bill Shankly.     

*Not once in the novel do you refer to Shanks as ‘he’. It’s always ‘Bill’ or ‘Bill Shankly’. Stylistically it seems perfect. But on the face of it it’s an odd decision. Why did you make it? 

Thank you! I wanted the entire book to be a portrait of Bill Shankly. And for me, Bill Shankly was a radical and revolutionary figure and so I wanted the text of the book to be radical and revolutionary, too. I’m not saying I have achieved that, mind, just that was my intention. And so every aspect of the style of the prose is meant to reflect the man I think Bill Shankly was. The contradiction, though, is that for the man himself it was never about “Bill Shankly” it was about Liverpool Football Club and, specifically, the supporters. But I was fascinated by the effect Shankly had on the people around him and how these people saw him and so half the book is about “Bill Shankly”. The other half is a more subjective “Bill” because I was trying to convey the more private side of the man, particularly the idea that he saw himself as a very ordinary person. Hence, the more domestic scenes. But all that said, Shankly was never, could never be, simply “he”. He was always “Bill Shankly” or “Bill” and, as you mention below, that must have been a great burden and weight on him and those people closest to him.   

*Right form the start of the novel you compare Shanks to God issuing commands – this is the impression he gives to the Liverpool scouting party when they watch him on the touchline at Huddersfield Town. And this divinity is a theme that persists throughout the novel in all sorts of interesting ways. The effect is that Shankly is portrayed as a spiritual leader as much as he is a football manager. He talks about the importance of ‘honesty’ and ‘truth’ on the pitch as much as he does about tactics. At the start of his Liverpool career you have a wonderful passage which is almost biblical where Bill and his staff spend day after day clearing away years of debris from Melwood, almost as if they’re creating a garden out of the desert. And after he’s retired and keeps re-appearing at Liverpool games there’s an element of the Resurrection about it. Supporters can’t believe he’s there. They have to touch him and ask him if it’s really him. Some men get on their knees before him. And wherever he goes people want to express their gratitude. There’s also that moment when you describe him appearing on the Kop and the crowd pushes back and forms a circle around him as if he’s in the centre of a halo. He emerges from the book as this saint, or guru, or icon, or even as a godlike figure. Is this the way you wanted people to see Bill Shankly?

Thank you again, Mark, sincerely. It means so much that you thought about the book in this way because that was very much my hope for the book. But again, it goes back to this contradiction of, for Shankly himself, it not being about him. He believed – at least I think – that everyone had the potential to do the things he had done. And I suppose, to continue on a religious theme, this was also Christ’s message; I believe Jesus was always the son of man, not the son of God that organised religions portray him as being. So the most important thing to me about Shankly is to understand his life and his work as an inspiration and his potential to be a continual inspiration in this day and age, in the same way, perhaps, that the lives of saints inspired people in older times.   

*At the same time, of course, there’s a price to be paid, as there tends to be for saints. There’s an aspect of martyrdom in his life. In one team-talk Shanks sounds almost like Martin Luther King making that speech on the eve of his assassination. And it’s clear in your novel that Shanks has sacrificed precious things in his life for football. There’s a massive emotional toll to managing Liverpool FC – at least in the way Shanks interpreted the job. You have him talking about “the great weight” that he carries with him in his retirement – and the fact that he is condemned to remember every single game and every single goal. Did it have to be that way do you think?

Well, again, I wanted to show the great struggle and sacrifice that it took – and also for those around him – for Shankly to achieve the things he did for Liverpool Football Club. To put it bluntly, if we want to change the way things are – both on and off the pitch – then we have to be prepared to struggle and, especially, to make sacrifices. And, perhaps to state the obvious, it is not easy. It hard work and a great burden for those who choose to take it up.

*I thought that the way you treated this whole ‘religious’ dimension to his football life was fantastic and it actually made me think afresh what I thought I knew about Shanks. I was an Anfield regular in his last season which was the season (I think I’m right in saying) that the Kop started singing his name to the tune of ‘Amazing Grace’. It was very beautifully sung in those days, nice and slow and utterly reverential. Of course the tune was adopted and adapted for every team and eventually hammered into irrelevance as football songs often are. But your book reminded me of the experience of singing that hymn at Anfield and the fact that there was no irony in it at all. We meant it. And now, having read your book, I’m sure that Shankly must have understood the crowd’s sincerity. That’s a lot of pressure for a man isn’t it? All that reverence?   

Exactly, and I think this was the burden and the pressure that ultimately led him to resign when he did. Shankly had this great fear of ever cheating or deceiving anyone and I think this, for example, is in part why he answered every single letter personally. But it is very interesting what you say about the singing and there being no irony. Because writing the book, it struck me over and over, again and again, how cynicism and irony – two of the great the curses of modern times – simply were not in Shankly’s vocabulary.   

*You must have loved writing about Shankly’s fabled love of exaggeration? His team talks were rife with it and you have some hilarious pages where Bill is essentially telling his players that Man United are just a three-man team (Law, Charlton and Best) and that the three men are, respectively, a cripple, a pensioner and a drunk. The same happens when he gives his men the low-down on formidable European opponents like Anderlecht or Inter Milan. Or when he trashes Johnny Morrissey (who migrated across the park to Goodison) and Lou Macari (who chose Old Trafford rather than Anfield). Similarly, every new player signed by Shanks seems to be told that they will be made into the greatest player in the world. Why was this bullshitting so effective?

I’m not sure it was bullshitting to Shankly. He would have perhaps described it as kidology! Particularly with the London press. But I actually think, more-often-than-not, he genuinely believed the things he said. He always thought the best of people and that, in turn, then brought out the best in people. I mean, Phil Thompson told me, very honestly and very humbly, that he knew he was just a very ordinary player. But Shankly really did make Thommo believe he was one of the greatest players who had ever played.
*You didn’t shy away from Shankly’s socialism. Bill came, of course, from the Ayrshire coalfield, a part of Britain where socialism was the common-sense and everyday morality of the people and it’s well known that he described the Liverpool way of playing football as being ‘socialist’. How important was this part of Shankly’s make-up to you? Because, in the context of the book, it seems very important?

Well, I think it is essential and fundamental to the man. And I think it would be impossible and wrong to write about Shankly in any other way. His socialism which, as you say, came from his upbringing, informed and inspired every aspect and facet of his life, on and off the pitch. The poverty of Glenbuck and the hardships of mining taught him that the only way to overcome that kind of poverty and hardship was by people helping each other and sticking together, communally. So it was never about the individual, the self, because the individual would always be crushed. It was always about the collective.

*On this theme, the speech that Shanks gave in 1971 on returning to Liverpool after being defeated by Arsenal in the Cup Final (which features in the book) shows what might have been if Bill had become a trade-union or Labour party leader. There’s something about his command of the crowd that puts you in mind of Keir Hardie or Nye Bevan. He had a way of speaking about ‘the people’ with their kind of authority too. A terrible loss to football, and Liverpool in particular, but can you see it? Bill Shankly the labour leader?

Yes, I wish! Because, as you say, Shankly is very much in the tradition of a Keir Hardie or a Nye Bevan. Shankly never spoke down to anyone. He saw himself as exactly the same as the people on the Kop, for example. And so when he spoke, he spoke not to them, but for them. And when was the last time a modern-day Labour leader ever did that? 

*The novel is, among other things, a paean to dedication and hard work. Shankly is obsessed with it and can’t turn off. Even cutlery ceases to be something you eat food with and is turned, instead, into tools with which Bill plans matches or undertakes post-mortems. There’s just no escape for the man. You refer to Shanks ‘always looking, always listening, always learning, always working’. Is this something we should envy or admire or pity?

It is absolutely something I admire and was inspired by. Again, going back to writing the book for younger people like my son, and also myself, I was struck over and over by Shankly’s sheer determination and dedication in all his struggles and his sacrifices for other people. And I think this is something we have lost; now, it seems to me, we have only some horrible sense of individual entitlement, expecting instant gratification and success. 

*There are some unbearably poignant moments where you describe the purgatory of his retirement. On day one, for example, where all his perfectionism goes into washing the car and clearing the lawn (with its echoes of clearing Melwood on that other first day). And then those occasions where he’s invited by the club to big games and he hovers outside the changing room, hearing the voices from within, longing to join them, being unable to. In some ways they are the best bits of the book, as much as I enjoyed Bill in his moments of supreme triumph. Did you set out being intrigued by how a man like Shankly would deal with retirement or did this just grow as you were writing?

Well, initially, I did plan to only write about the mystery of Shankly’s resignation and then his retirement. But it quickly became clear to me that you could not really write about the retirement of a man without first writing about his work. And one of the contradictions of the book is that the second half is perhaps the part that most conforms to a traditional novel (being about an individual) and is also the part most of us can also more easily relate to because, in a way, we are all now retired, cut off from the kind of collective, communal work that used to define and sustain many of us (or, at least, our fathers and grandfathers). But, of course, for Shankly this was almost a living hell. And so I did think it was also important to show that no matter how dark some of those times must have been for Shankly, he must also have been sustained by the constant contact he still had with the ordinary supporters and their very obvious gratitude and affection for him and all he had helped the club to achieve. 

*I loved the Liverpool-Leeds, Shankly-Revie sub-plot. That was the great fixture of the 1965-75 period in English football. The ‘white cliffs’ and the ‘red waves’ is such an apt way of describing those epic encounters. I love the way, also, that you have Shanks and Revie continuing to fight over the meaning of the game long after the whistle has gone.  No rivalry has ever matched this one has it? And how could it in the age of hype?

Yes, Liverpool and Leeds were the two most consistent clubs during that period and, again as you say, their matches were always epic encounters. And, as an aside, how either club didn’t actually manage to win more during that period is another mysterious sub-plot. And it is hard to think of another more intense and long-lasting rivalry than that one. And it was also fought out with such tremendous mutual respect, not only between the two managers and the players but also between the supporters. And the Kop saluting Leeds after they win the title at Anfield is something that Leeds supporters still talk about (and the reason why almost two hundred folk turned up at Waterstones in Leeds to hear me read and talk about Shankly). And as you say, that is not hype. That is genuinely felt. 

*You’re a Town fan I believe (I was born and raised in Crosland Moor and my dad was a friend of Les Massie who’s mentioned in the book). Near the end of the novel you have Shanks pondering on what he could have achieved at Leeds Road if he’d received backing from the board. It’s one of the great ‘what ifs’ I suppose, and I know he refers to it in his autobiography. Huddersfield’s pedigree was, after all, as good as Liverpool’s in 1960. How does it make you feel when you consider this ‘what if’?

I think all Huddersfield supporters will always wonder “what if?” But – and it is a big and possibly contentious “but” to many Town fans – from what people who were there at the time say, Shankly did not actually make a huge impression at Town and that probably also reflects a culture where the manager was not yet seen as being that important. And so when Shankly left, there was no great outcry. More the worry was that he might have taken the likes of Ray Wilson and Denis Law with him. But, for what it’s worth, I don’t honestly think – even if the Huddersfield board had agreed to buy St. John and Yeats as Shankly wanted – that Shankly would have been able to establish Huddersfield in the way he did with Liverpool. Because, and this is the reason Shankly left and went to Liverpool, he knew there was fervour and a passion in the crowd at Anfield that just was not there at Town and that he also knew he could tap into that and harness that and create something very special at Anfield.   

*I know I won’t be the only person to read this book and lament for a game which no longer exists. The interview that Shanks gives to the Italian TV crew outside Anfield – as Thatcherism is beginning to sink its teeth into the city – feels like an elegy for a game and a culture that is about to disappear. Do you regret what we’ve lost in the game? Do you like modern football?

Yes, I do regret what we have lost in the game. Specifically that bond between the local community and their club. I mean, most kids growing up around Anfield will simply not be able to afford to go and see the team play. And that, to me, is wrong. But just as most of us who watched football in the 1970s and 80s will also know how bleeding dangerous it was a lot of time, I think it’s important to remember that football – then and now – only reflects the society in which it is played out. But I also think it is important to remember that men like Shankly came from the kind of poverty that most of us – not all of us – are fortunate enough never to have known. And similarly, that when Shankly took over at Liverpool, he was still battling against directors, the owners and the men with money, and that through his struggle and his sacrifice he changed things. And so much as I might rail against modern football, and modern life, a man like Shankly shows that the potential is always there to change things.   

*RAWKites will be pleased that you acknowledged Wooltonian’s definitive post on the origins of YNWA as a football anthem. They’ll be doubly pleased when they see what you’ve done with it – that’s to say, how it affected Shankly when he first heard it. How many times a day did you sing the anthem when you were writing?

Well, nothing sums up Shankly and his socialism more than that song. It is beautiful and it is inspiring.

*My favourite moment in the book is when Kevin Keegan gives Bill his trophy for European Footballer of the Year. It’s a great moment because Shanks understands the importance of the gesture, embellishes it with a bit of Second World War history and then insists upon a condition that is, in itself, perfect. What’s your favourite bit?

Thanks, Mark. I like that bit, too! I also like the moment when Shankly goes down to the ground, after Liverpool have beaten Bruges in the European Cup Final, and Anfield is all closed up but he still hears the chanting and the singing, from the bricks and the stones, and then he meets the little lad and gives him his LFC badge. And like many of the stories in the book, this was based on a post on one of the message boards.

*While reading your book I came across a New Statesman column written by Wilf Self in which he despaired at the football public. It was a well-written piece but the central idea was as hackneyed as hell. Spectator sports turn people into automata etc. Is there anything at all in this patrician idea?

Well, as you say, it is hackneyed and also condescending. Football to me, for all its faults, is still one of the few places left of genuine community and that is why it remains a threat to the powers-that-be, for want of a better phrase, and still then also has the potential for those communities to change things, collectively.
*Have you ever been to Anfield on match-day?

No! Down the years, I have seen Liverpool play many times, mainly at Elland Road, beginning with the first season Bob Paisley was in charge, but never at Anfield (though I have been to Anfield four or five times not on a match day). But I actually think  - or at least hope - not having been there on a match day helped me to portray Anfield as a mythical place. Because I think that is how Shankly saw it.
*How would Bill deal with Luis Suarez?

Good question. And there is a chapter towards the end of the book – “We Must Get Back to Sanity” – in which Shankly is already railing against the excesses and money of the modern game and the footballer as an individual and a mercenary (and this was in 1979!). But while it is (particularly) easy to focus on and single out a player like Suarez and hold him up as the personification of the individual footballer, out for himself etc., once again, I think it is important to remember that Suarez, for all his faults, is only an example of the wider society in which we all live and not the cause of its ills. But to answer your question, the one problem that Shankly never had to face was that of agents.

*Who’ll play him in the film?

Another good question! As I said, I felt a huge sense of responsibility writing about the man and so I wouldn’t envy the actor who had to actually try and portray him on screen. But I still think Peter Mullan could give it a shot.

*How about Mourinho for your next subject? Not a saint like Bill. Not built on foundations like Bill’s. But a football man with an interesting story nonetheless?  (You may need the lawyers back of course).

Well, there is certainly a story or two there. And going back to rivalries, I was fascinated by the Mourinho-Guardiola one over those few seasons in Spain. Be a very dark book, though, and a return to my dark ages!

Thank you, Mark. Great, great questions. Sincerely. David.

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