As the 1st day of the new Football season drew to a close there seemed no better way to end the day than by attending the David Peace event at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Peace is the author of one of the best, and certainly most controversial football novels of recent times, ‘The Damned United’. He is also the author of ‘Red or Dead’ a novel charting the life story of one of footballs greatest ever managers Bill Shankly and ‘GB84’ another novel based on factual events, this time centered on the Miners Strike which took place in Britain in the early 1980’s.
As 2014 sees the 40th anniversary of Shankly’s retirement and the 30th anniversary of the miners strike it seemed appropriate for Peace to focus his talk on these two novels. He began by reading a passage from ‘Red or Dead’ when Shankly in his retirement was interviewed by local radio after a Liverpool game. Almost immediately Peace’s succinct, sharp, repetitive prose became apparent as he mesmerised the audience almost from the first word. Some writers read their work rather less than well than they write; this is not the case for Peace. It was a joy to listen to him as he enveloped the audience with his wonderful prose.
Following the reading David Robinson chair of the event and Books Editor of The Scotsman quoted Peace as saying he thought Shankly was a ‘revolutionary and a Saint’ before asking ‘Did you know this before writing the book?’ Peace answered “As a Huddersfield Town fan I grew up with the stories of Shankly. There was always a feeling it could have been us! I was always aware of the image of him as a legendary football manager and socialist. However I don’t remember him resigning and I had a limited knowledge of his achievements. I had no idea about the collective journey Shankly took Liverpool on and how he (Shankly) was the catalyst.”
Robinson then moved on to ask about the repetition that features in the book. For example every single league and FA Cup game from 1959-1964 is covered in the book. “Was there a risk this would alienate your readers?” Peace replied “partly I did it to demonstrate the sheer commitment, enthusiasm and sacrifice that Shankly made…football itself is also repetitious. It’s like a religious calendar but often without the resurrection at the end. I did cut the league cup games!” he joked.
The conversation then moved to Peace’s writing process. The first people to read his book are always his Dad, Agent and Editor. He likes to give a ‘clean’ manuscript and will spend many hours redrafting his work before final submission. The most challenging aspect of ‘Red or Dead’ was writing a story without reducing it too much to be focused solely on the individual. “Where did the idea of the book come from?” asked Robinson. Shankly wasn’t planned and Peace would never normally break this pattern. However when phoned and asked if he would be interested in doing a book on Shankly he decided to do it instantly. “It was like Shankly was always there but I hadn’t noticed him before.”
The focus them shifted to Peace’s novel ‘GB84’ published 10 years ago to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the miners strike. Robinson informed us that in today’s terms breaking the strike cost the equivalent of £37 billion. Peace believed this was the ‘final battle’ of the Thatcher government. “Everything was in place for a strike. The stockpiling of coal, the training that the police had been undertaking…I wanted to use the novel to tell the history and truth of the strike, using as many voices as possible.” Peace then read an extract from ‘GB84’ describing the infamous ‘Battle of Orgreave’. This was another mesmerising and at times moving reading from Peace as we were transported back to Sheffield and the height of the biggest industrial dispute in British history.
Peace is without doubt one of the UK’s most outstanding contemporary novelists. Two of his novels have dissected two of footballs greatest ever managers whilst he has also written with great passion and emotion on the miners strike and the impact it had on communities both then and how it still resonates in those communities today. If as asked by one audience member he would ever consider writing a book on Alex Ferguson, a man who combines both football management and working class ideals, the result could be fascinating.