Book review: Red or Dead, By David Peace

A football novel on Liverpool FC's Bill Shankly that puts stylised prose above human interest
  • @djtaylorwriter

We may as well begin with a quotation. It is the winter of 1965 and Bill Shankly, the manager of Liverpool FC, is sitting in his office at the club's Anfield ground answering a hefty stack of fan-mail: "Bill stopped typing. Bill took the letter out of his typewriter. Bill put down the letter on his desk. Bill put his hand inside his jacket. Bill took out his pen. His red pen. Bill unscrewed the top of his pen. Above the word Manager, Bill signed the letter B. Shankly. Bill put down his pen on the desk. Bill opened the top drawer of his desk. Bill took out an envelope..."

And so on for another 300 words. The passage quoted is, I should straight-away add, entirely representative of the 200 pages that precede it and the 500 that follow. Some are a little less repetitive-cum-staccato in their design, others a trifle more, but this will do to convey their general tone.

What does it remind you of? Well, if its disdain of the adjective and its near-complete avoidance of the figurative garnish betrays a grounding in one or two of the more austere modernist masters, I couldn't help recalling the Ant and Bee books, with which generations of post-war children were taught to read ("Ant said that because Bee was ill he would have to stay in bed. But Bee said that he did not want to stay in bed"). There is the same dogged intentness, the same incremental inching forward, the same determination to let nothing interpose itself between describer and described. What, it might reasonably be asked, is going on?

Opening on the day of Shankly's appointment in October 1959, and ending with a brief and, for once, impressionistic account of his death in 1981, Red or Dead is, unlike certain other novels about football, exclusively a novel about football, with all the procedural hazards that this caste-mark implies. Unlike cricket, which has a literature all to itself, the number of decent football novels can be counted on the fingers of one hand. They include JL Carr's How Steeple Sinder by Wanders Won the FA Cup (1975), They Used to Play on Grass (1973), a collaboration between the one-time England manager Terry Venables and the novelist Gordon Williams, and Williams's own From Scenes Like These (1968), which contains some deft reportage from the West of Scotland amateur leagues.

Aficionados usually complain that there are two difficulties inherent in writing fiction about the beautiful game. The first is that the inarticulacy of the protagonists inhibits much in the way of dialogue. The second is that sport, rather like sex, is generally seen as a romantic activity, and yet the urge to write about it realistically involves the importation of all kinds of unromantic physical detail. You begin with herculean figures roaming the greensward and end up with broken ankles and the reek of embrocation.

David Peace, it scarcely needs saying, is not interested in jumping over either of these aesthetic hurdles, or even in crawling beneath them. His idea of a match report is this account of Liverpool playing Royal Sporting Club Anderlecht in the European Cup on 25 November 1964: "In the tenth minute Lawrence threw the ball to Byrne. In red, all in red. Byrne passed to Thompson. In red, all in red, Thompson passed to Smith. In red, all in red, Smith passed to Hunt. In red, all in red, Hunt shot. And Trappeniers parried the ball. The ball bounced to St John. And in red, all in red, St John scored..."

From the literary-theoretical angle, you can see exactly what Peace is trying to do. Rather than envisaging football as a game, or a moral paradigm, or a piece of social litmus paper, he regards it as a repetitive and at at times almost incantatory ritual, a kind of immensely stylised dance to the music of time in which the participants will always lurk in the shadow of the spectacle and everything – plot, character, psychology – is secondary to the communal impulse. Anything else – figurative language, fine writing, quiddity, the world outside – simply gets in the way.

The stylisation of Peace's novels has been exercising the pundits since the days of his celebrated Red Riding Quartet, of which one critic noted that if you knew the meaning of the word "fuck" then you'd read 10 per cent of it at a stroke. Here the parched, stripped-down cadences of the prose have squeezed the life out of nearly everything the average fiction-reader holds dear. Shankly himself is represented as a Christian socialist, a compulsive, an obsessive, fond of children, hard as nails in the conduct of his professional life and loyal to those around him, but the relationships he maintains and the opinions he holds might as well be conveyed by semaphore signals.

Ness, his long-suffering but supportive wife, gets the occasional line, but the daughters on whom he dotes are vague, offstage presences, listening to pop in their bedrooms or away giving birth to his phantom grandchildren. Again, their absence is Peace's point – the proof of Shankly's obsession, the rapt singlemindedness of his gaze – but it would take a very charitable reader not to suspect that the kind of narrative sanctity he aspires to has been bought at the expense of human interest.

And so, to pastiche Peace's highly pasticheable style, Bill manages Liverpool. Bill manages Liverpool for 15 years and a quarter of a million words. Bill is a big success at Liverpool. Bill wins lots of trophies. Bill goes on This Is Your Life with Eamonn Andrews. After a decade and a half at the top Bill stops managing Liverpool, only to find that when Bill has stopped managing Liverpool Bill is not very happy (And Ant, or perhaps it was Gertrude Stein, said that because Bee was still ill he must stay in bed for another day. And Bee said he did not want to stay in bed.)

Who is this written for? The average football fan will put it down after a dozen pages. The highbrow fiction fancier will applaud the aesthetic passion that drives it, while turning up his, or her, nose at the subject matter. Cast and preoccupations are almost exclusively male, which detaches it from most of the prospective female readership. You can only assume that Peace wrote it for that most reliable, persistent and forgiving audience: himself.

DJ Taylor's new novel, 'The Windsor Faction', is published by Chatto & Windus next month