The Damned Utd, by David Peace

Waiting for Cloughie

Gordon Burn
Friday 25 August 2006 00:00

David Peace's new novel ends with the words with which GB84, its predecessor, began: "This novel is a fiction, based on a fact." The Damned Utd is one of those works of fiction - Philip Roth's The Plot Against America and Sebastian Barry's Booker-shortlisted A Long Long Way are two of several recent examples - which come with an apparatus of "sources and acknow- ledgements". That is itself an acknowledgement of the blurred and frequently indecipherable line that now separates lived experience from invention and memory, and all the varieties of second-hand experience, and which has become the natural condition of living in modern, haywire hyper-reality.

The American writer Howard Singerman has argued persuasively that the collective memory of any recent generation has now become the individual memory of each of its members. For "the things that carry the memory are marked not by the privacy, the specificity and insignificance, of Proust's madeleine, but precisely by their publicness and their claims to significance". It is this kind of indelible memory-experience that many of us looked to the World Cup to provide. Only the French found it in Zidane's instantly folkloric, hypnotically replayed head-butting incident in the dying minutes of the final.

Only two years after his death, it is already difficult to remember the central place the football manager Brian Clough occupied in English national life: somewhere between William Connor (the sharp-tongued "Cassandra" of the old Daily Mirror) and Eric Morecambe shading into John Lennon. He was football know-it-all, socialist, piss-artist, tabloid provocateur, philanthropist, people's favourite television gobshite.

How do you bottle a hurricane? Peace's answer is that in Cloughie's case you don't: you let it fart and belch and bluster its way to burn-out, oblivious of the devastation and blow-back it is creating.

The book is divided into 44 chapters, one for every day of Clough's brief reign as manager of Leeds United at the beginning of the 1974 season: a mismatch of both heroic and farcical proportions. Clough hated Leeds ("Hateful, hateful place; spiteful, spiteful place") and he despised dirty-dealing Don Revie, their manager, who had just ascended to the only job Clough ever wanted: England manager.

To make his feelings unambiguously clear, in his first week he takes an axe to Revie's hallowed desk and chair and, together with his secret files and dossiers on opponents, makes a bonfire of them in the car park. Then he sets about chopping down the star players' high opinions of themselves and doing over the directors with the same kind of vengeful energy that the prop-forward Arthur Machin devotes to refusing to bed the chairman's wife in David Storey's This Sporting Life - a book Peace mentions in his acknowledgements.

"They are his team," Clough rants in one of many recurring riffs. "His Leeds. His dirty, fucking Leeds and they always will be. Not my team. Never. Not mine. Never. Not this team. Never." Anybody who has ever seen Peace read (and I shared a platform with him - was blown off a platform by him - this month) will be aware that he combines the attack of early, angry Elvis Costello with the percussive compulsion of one of Beckett's late monologues for the theatre.

Even cold on the page, his prose has the incantatory power of the single, spotlit, spitting mouth in Not I. Weirdly, for a writer whose subjects to date have been the reign of terror caused by the Yorkshire Ripper in the late Seventies and the 1984-85 miners' strike, Beckett is a clear influence. The sections narrated in the second person, which alternate with Cloughie's mad, biblical, first-person eruptions, clearly take their cue from Beckett's most autobiographical novella, Company.

Beckett once conceded that he wrote Company for company towards the end of his long exile in France. Peace is a Yorkshireman who for a number of years has lived in Tokyo. The geographical distance seems to have propelled him towards a place and a culture - the old industrial areas of Britain in the era of Thatcherite decline - which were disappearing around the time he was born.

Significantly, perhaps, at the time of his death Clough was one of the last public figures in Britain to be regularly photographed wearing the once-traditional badge of class membership of the British worker, the cloth cap. If the English novel still needs the kick up the pants that everybody regularly insists it does, then now, with the arrival of The Damned Utd, is time to consider it wholeheartedly kicked. From deep inside a singular obsession, Peace has pulled out a brave and startling, barely house-trained thing.

Gordon Burn's new book, 'Best and Edwards', will be published in October

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