More Important than That
David Peace discusses Red or Dead, his novel about the life of Bill Shankly
In explaining why you wanted to write Red or Dead, you said: “I’ve written about corruption, I’ve written about crime, I’ve written about bad men and I’ve written about the demons. But now I’ve had enough of the bad men and the demons. Now I want to write about a good man.” Some of us can’t get enough of the bad men and the demons. The devil, they say, has the best tunes. Writers often find more depth and complexity in evil characters. In Red or Dead Bill Shankly comes over as a saintly man and a good socialist. So, how was it for you?
Initially — instinctively, perhaps — I was drawn to Shankly by the mystery of his sudden resignation and retirement. And again, initially and instinctively, the temptation was there to focus solely on the resignation and the retirement; Shankly as Lear in the wilderness, as a Willy Loman or an Archie Rice figure. But that’s not the story or, at least, not the whole story. Because I quickly realised that the story is in the work, in the acts of Bill Shankly; the determination and the struggle to take Liverpool Football Club into the First Division, to win the League and the Cup, and on into Europe. And the more I read about how he did that and the effect he had on the people and the supporters of Liverpool Football Club, the more that became the story. And yes, it is the story of a good man. A socialist and a saint.
But I’d never written about such a man before. And, as you say, we are drawn to the bad men and the demons. But I don’t agree the devil has the best tunes; he just has the more comforting and familiar ones; the ones which help us to accept and justify our own failings, perhaps. And, of course, it is always “easier to find inhabitants for an inferno or even a purgatorio” (to quote Ezra Pound). But, just personally, first reading and then writing about Bill Shankly was a very, very welcome change. And it was inspiring. And I hope people who read the book will also find it inspiring. And a welcome change from all the narratives of defeat.
It’s always been a mystery to me why Shankly suddenly retired, at the top of his game, in 1974 when he was 60, handing over to Bob Paisley who was only a few years younger. Part of his “goodness” was, as you make clear, his desire to spend more time with his wife and family. Do you think he could have ‘done a Fergie’ and gone on for another decade? And, if so, would Liverpool have been just as successful as they were under his successors?
Well, it is a fascinating question but, obviously, an impossible one to answer. I don’t think we will ever know now exactly why Bill Shankly resigned when he did. But I do think — from all I have read and from what people who knew Shankly have said — that his retirement was often painful and he often regretted his decision. And undoubtedly he could have gone on and, with the team he had in 1974, I am sure they would have been successful. But, as I say, whether or not they would have been as successful under Shankly as they became under Paisley is an impossible question to answer. And I’d also be very, very wary of underestimating Bob Paisley.
As a Huddersfield Town fan, what do you think would have happened if Shanks had stayed at Leeds Road: would there have been a Herbert Chapman effect?
Absolutely, yes! A return to the glories of the Twenties! Shankly himself said — and, of course, I wasted no time shoe-horning this into the novel — that had the Town board agreed to sign [Ron] Yeats and [Ian] St John, then Town would have gone on to win “all there was to win”. And as with everything else Saint Bill said, I’ll take that as gospel.
You listened to a lot of Shankly interviews and tapes. His voice was very stirring — it must have been a contrast to the cartoonish Scottish accent contemporary impersonators like Mike Yarwood went in for. I bet there weren’t lots of “aaays”. I remember Monty Python sending him up quite a lot. What is so unusual about this book is that Shankly is a hero rather than an anti-hero. After all your anti-heroes and their demons, what was it like getting inside Shankly’s head?
One thing I very consciously tried to avoid in the novel was reducing Bill Shankly to a cliché. Of course, he had many pithy one-liners and was extremely witty and so lends himself to being remembered as a funny man. But there was much, much more to him than that and I hope the complexity and depth of the man comes across in the novel. And again, as you say, he was a hero.
Given this, can you understand why Liverpool appeared to treat him so badly after he retired? It seems reasonable that Paisley wanted him out of the way — but it is astonishing to read that the board were so ruthless and insensitive towards a man who transformed the Reds into a British footballing institution.
To be honest, I don’t think Liverpool Football Club treated Shankly that badly. Or, at least, not intentionally. I think there were a lot of misunderstandings on both sides, particularly by Shankly. And I also think it’s important to remember that both the board and Shankly were haunted by what had happened to Manchester United after the resignation of Sir Matt Busby; both Shankly and the board wanted to avoid any repetition at Liverpool Football Club. And, understandably, the club had to move on but, at the same time, understandably again, Shankly found it difficult to let go. And he must have had incredibly mixed feelings about the success of the club after he left which, again, I think is only human and very understandable. But by 1981, at the time Shankly died, I don’t believe there was any bitterness or resentment on either side. And I hope that is what comes across in the novel.
Up until now, your work has focused on Yorkshire and Tokyo. You were brought up in God’s Own County and have been living in Japan for some time. Was writing about Liverpool in the 1960s and 70s a big leap for you?
Not really, no. I mean, writing about Japan and Tokyo during the American Occupation was (and is again now, now I am back writing the last book in the Tokyo Trilogy) much more difficult. I’ve got good friends from Liverpool and have spent a fair bit of time there down the years. But writing Red or Dead, I was very conscious of, for want of a better phrase, the “generation gap” between me and Bill Shankly. His background, for example, was obviously very different from my own and from most people of my age or younger. And also having not retired yet. But I was able, I suppose, to draw on things I knew about my own grandfathers and father.
Once again, I found the staccato, rhythmic prose style — familiar from the Red Riding series and GB84 — to be hypnotic, elevating the narration beyond mere storytelling. But it won’t be every football fan’s cup of tea. To play devil’s advocate, what would you say to those who, for example, might baulk at the relentless repetition?
As I say, “the work” is for me the most important part of the story. Shankly himself described football as a relentless river that goes on and on. And I wanted to show that in the text. And how consuming and draining that work is. I don’t think it’s enough to simply say, for example, “Bill Shankly trained every day with the players of Liverpool Football Club”. I think you have to show exactly what that entailed, what it meant. And so I very much wanted the novel to be a book the reader would experience and live, just as Shankly experienced and lived it. And in the same way, I think every game, and every detail of every game, is important. And I actually think most football supporters will appreciate that. Because even as supporters we all know how consuming and draining football is, let alone what it must be like for a manager. And, at the same time, we all know that all those very consuming and draining repetitions that make up football are also its appeal; the very things that give us comfort and sustain us.
You admire Shankly for his single-minded determination to transform Liverpool from also-rans to a European power — which he did —and his famous bond with the Kop. Don Revie, surely (as a Leeds fan, I know I’m biased…) did a similar thing and had a similar effect at Leeds, as did Sir Matt Busby at Manchester United. All three — Shankly, Revie and Busby —left league football at around the same time. Could a similar book have been written about these, and other, auteur-managers of the Shankly era? Or was he unique?
Well, I do think Shankly was unique. To give only one example, I think the bond he created and fostered with the supporters of Liverpool Football Club, particularly the Kop, is different from the relationship that either Busby or Revie had with the supporters of Manchester and Leeds. Or, at least, so it seems to me. And for me, personally, Shankly’s politics were also unique — particularly in his outspokenness, for example — and one of the reasons I was drawn to write about him. But equally, I think both Busby and Revie were unique, too. And so I am sure similar books could be written about both of them; in fact, Rob Endeacott has already written extensively about “the Don”. And, of course, all that Busby went through and achieved, before and after Munich, would lend itself to a very compelling and dramatic narrative. That said, A Strange Kind of Glory by Eamon Dunphy would take some beating!
The Shankly-Revie-Busby-Clough-Stein era seemed, to me, to be about social mobility, working-class aspiration and advance. These were all working-class-lads-made-great. Heroic even. Do you see it as a golden age? How does it compare to the present football era?
I agree with you, but I think it’s also important to stress that men such as Busby, Shankly and Stein were not only the beneficiaries of post-war working class social mobility, but also the instigators of that mobility. Again, in what they believed, achieved and how they led their lives. For me, it was a golden age because of these men. We are constantly taught and told that those days are gone, that the world is too different now. And yes, of course it is different. But what these men — and the entire working class and Labour and trade union movement achieved — was born out of circumstances much, much more difficult than the ones most of us face now. And so I genuinely and honestly believe that if we are prepared to sacrifice, struggle and work as those men once did, then we — not as individuals, but as a team — can achieve anything we want. On and off the pitch.
When Alex Ferguson retired recently there was a great deal more fuss made than in 1974, when Shankly resigned from Liverpool. Clearly Fergie was a more successful manager. But how do you compare and contrast their personalities, legacies and politics? After all, Fergie, like Shankly, calls himself a socialist.
A fascinating, and very relevant, question. But very difficult to answer briefly; I mean, it took Oliver Holt an entire book (If You’re Second You Are Nothing) to try to answer it! And you are right to say more fuss was made when (in a more fussy age) Sir Alex Ferguson resigned than when Shankly did in 1974. But at the same time, we should never forget or underestimate the great sense of disbelief and shock people felt when Shankly did resign. Thanks to YouTube, you can see that disbelief and shock in the report Tony Wilson did for Granada TV at the time. But to try at least partially to answer your question: Sir Alex Ferguson was a great admirer of Shankly and greatly influenced by him to the extent he used to play cassettes of Shankly speaking on the team bus when he was manager at Aberdeen (much to the annoyance of Gordon Strachan). And what Ferguson achieved at Aberdeen is perhaps when and where their two careers are at their most similar. Because when Shankly took over at Liverpool, his circumstances were very different from Ferguson’s when he went to United and so it is difficult to compare their respective legacies. And perhaps it is more useful to compare Ferguson with Paisley (and let’s never forget who won more European Cups). Of course, personalities and politics, particularly from the outside looking in, are also always very difficult to compare. But Ferguson seems to have more interests outside of football — wine and horses — than Shankly ever had and it will be interesting to watch how such interests help Ferguson cope with retirement. But finally, we should never forget how men like Shankly — and, of course Busby and Stein — in the way in which they changed how football clubs were managed and run, helped pave the way for the success of someone like Sir Alex Ferguson.
This feels to me, in some ways, to be a political book. Can you talk about Shankly’s socialism and, perhaps, how his ethos towards football was a socialist one? You obviously admire this ethos: can you explain why? Is this a lament for a better era, both in a footballing and political sense?
To paraphrase Stokely Carmichael, I believe every book is political, whether or not the author or reader consciously is aware of the fact. But for me Red or Dead is a socialist book. And I think it would be impossible to write about Shankly any other way. I think his socialism — and also his Christianity, which is connected to his view of socialism — was fundamental and integral to every aspect of his life and work. And to put it very, very simply: it was about equality, on and off the pitch, and working for the people and the supporters of Liverpool Football Club. And also the city of Liverpool. It was never about personal glory. It was about communal work for communal success. And I do admire this and lament its absence. But I also hope the book is more than simply a lament and, as I said before, that people can draw inspiration from the story and from Shankly’s life and work. And his beliefs that fuelled and sustained his life and work. Because there is no reason on earth — despite all we are taught and told to the contrary — why that “better era” cannot return again.
But do you not accept that that the game, like society, has changed, with individual greed replacing collectivism? For example, despite winning titles and other major trophies, winning the FA Cup in 1965 remained, for Shankly, his greatest day in football. Today, winning the Cup is not so special: a lower priority than avoiding relegation. In short, money conquers all; surely there are far more Gordon Gekkos around today than Bill Shanklys?
Yes, but there were a lot of Gordon Gekkos about when Bill Shankly began. I mean, Shankly’s life encompasses two World Wars, the Russian and Chinese Revolutions, the General Strike, the Great Depression and the creation of the Welfare State. So I would argue that Shankly and his generation had to contend with just as many Gordon Gekkos, if not more. And from a much more difficult starting point. And when Shankly took the job at Liverpool, his preconditions were that he had total control of all aspects of the training and the playing. And that, as manager, he picked the team. This was unprecedented. And revolutionary. And those are the two words that perhaps sum up Saint Bill: unprecedented and revolutionary! And an example which I passionately believe is as relevant today as it was in 1959.
I was fascinated by Shankly’s radio interview with the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, which you reproduce in the book. Was this a verbatim reproduction? And, if so, what was the thinking behind it? Do you see a connection between their careers — or at least their sudden and unexpected resignations in the mid-1970s?
John Roberts, who ghost-wrote Shankly’s autobiography, very kindly lent me some of the tapes of his original interviews with Shankly from 1975-76. And these tapes were a god-send in trying to capture the man in fiction; just to have Shankly’s voice fill the room as I was writing was very, very haunting and emotional for me. And in among these tapes, John also included the original broadcast of Shankly’s interview with Wilson from 1975 for Radio City. And the very first time I heard it, I just knew it had to go verbatim into the book. I mean, this was the Prime Minister of the day being interviewed by a former football manager; would that ever happen again? But more than that, I just felt every sentence they both said was so revealing about their own lives and the times they were living in. I also think their conversation has a poignancy and resonance for today, too. But yes, for a long, long time, I’ve been fascinated by Wilson and, once again, the mystery of his sudden resignation. And I hope to write more about Wilson later (as I see GB84, The Damned Utd, Red or Dead and UK DK — my book about Wilson — as forming a very loose quartet).
I have to admit, though, the interview was also another great opportunity for me to get Huddersfield Town into the book.