David Peace: In The Light

In 2010, David Peace, author of chilling Yorkshire masterpieces The Damned Utd and the Red Riding quartet, suffered a crisis of confidence so severe he considered abandoning his writing career altogether. But a phone call suggesting he write about Liverpool FC legend Bill Shankly changed all that. The resulting novel, out this month, is both an intimate portrait of a saintly man and an epic portrayal of the decline of the English working class

Most Popular

David Peace is sitting in darkness. It’s difficult to make out much more than a suggestion of his thick-framed glasses and the outline of his shaved head. Darkness is the world his books inhabit, the dystopia in which butal crimes are committed, their perpetrators fester and perceptions twist until it becomes all but impossible to distinguish blind paranoia from truth.

His eight novels to date, in which he has torn fiction from fact in the most visceral sense, have explored the institutional and moral corruption of his native Yorkshire set against the backdrop of the Ripper manhunt, the "occult history", as he described it, of the miners’ strike of the mid-Eighties, the demonic inner life of football manager Brian Clough, and murder investigations amid the chaos of newly vanquished Japan. From the rain-lashed concrete of Leeds to the ruins of occupied Tokyo, the terrains he transports us to are bleak, barren and populated by characters in the grip of forces beyond their control.

So why now, with his latest novel, a gargantuan tome on Bill Shankly, the messianic Scot who transformed Liverpool FC from a football backwater into a trophy-laden European powerhouse, has Peace finally decided to step into the light?

"I was fed up of writing about the dark side,” he says, flicking a switch in his Tokyo apartment to reveal not the drawn features of someone who has been submersed in the horrors for too long, but the contented aspect of a man who has spent the last two years living with a saint.

The motives for this surprising shift in emphasis become a little clearer when he reflects on the perceived negativity of his first five books: the Red Riding quartet (Nineteen Seventy-Four, Nineteen Seventy-Seven, Nineteen Eighty and Nineteen Eighty-Three) about the Ripper, his first books to be published, and GB84, the award- winning reimagining of a Yorkshire under siege during the miners’ strike of 1984–’85.

"I was fed up with critiquing and not really offering any kind of counter-narrative," he explains. "After the Red Riding TV films came out [in 2009], people started pointing out that it was feeding into a mythology which I was actually trying very hard to undo at the same time.

"I grew up in Yorkshire in the Seventies," he adds, "and it was fucking shit. It is one thing for me to say that, but it was starting to be played into the clichéd perceptions, if you see what I mean. I just felt really that I needed to stop. I wanted to write a book about somebody I admired and a narrative that might actually be useful." 

Red or Dead, the new book on Shankly, weighs in at a hefty 714 pages: 90 chapters split into two halves; the first covering his remarkable achievements over a period of 15 years as the architect of the modern Liverpool Football Club; the second the years spent in retirement following his sudden decision to step down in 1974. 

Other than its focus on a hero, the book bears all the hallmarks of a Peace novel: the signature style, characterised by short, nagging sentences and rhythmic repetition that occasionally teeters on the high wire, all underscored by a slavish devotion to detail. But perhaps the quality above all others that defines his work is its kinetic purpose. For not only is Peace Britain’s leading exponent of crime noir, he is a writer for whom politics really matter.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

The portrait Peace has created of Shankly is of a man driven by desire, namely to create a football team that reflects the values of the working classes that populate the Kop end of Anfield: "A working class team," is how Shankly defiantly describes it in one scene. "We have no room for individuals. No room for stars. No fancy footballers or celebrities. We are workers. A team of workers."

Of the countless nuggets of detail mined by the author during his year of research before the writing process began, one of the most telling is that the players who won the FA Cup in 1965, for the first time in the club’s history, were all on the same wage. "Our football was a form of socialism," Shankly tells Prime Minister Harold Wilson during a standout sequence in the second half of the book: a radio interview that took place a year after his own resignation, and a year before Wilson’s.

Most Popular

I put it to Peace that rather than being a novel that’s simply nostalgic for better times and better men, this is actually a book about arguably Britain’s last great socialist leader. "I think it is dangerous to set out with a particular agenda," he replies, "but I also don’t think it is possible to write about Bill Shankly and ignore the politics."


Great shakes: Brian Clough and Bill Shankly prior to kick-off at the Leeds v Liverpool Charity Shield match at Wembley, 1974

David Peace is 46 years old. He grew up in Ossett, West Yorkshire, a stone’s throw from where one of his early literary heroes, Stan Barstow, the author of A Kind of Loving, once lived. His parents were primary school teachers, and it was his father, in particular, who fostered his love of books. The mid-20th century works of northern writers such as Barstow and fellow "Angry Young Men" John Braine and Alan Sillitoe, of David Storey (This Sporting Life) and Barry Hines (A Kestrel for a Knave, which Hines adapted for Ken Loach’s Kes), occupied Peace’s teenage years. From there, he moved further afield, discovering works by Greene and Chandler, Beckett and Burroughs. 

"But to be honest," Peace wrote in 2001, "I think the single biggest influence upon me was growing up when and where I did." He was 10 years old and living only five miles away when the body of Jayne McDonald, Peter Sutcliffe’s fifth victim (of 13), was discovered in a Leeds adventure playground, on 26 June 1977. "From that day until the capture of the Yorkshire Ripper on Friday, 2 January 1981, I was obsessed with trying to solve the case." 

At a time when local women were being clubbed to death and their bodies abandoned on waste ground, and many scores of innocent men were picked up and questioned by the police, the young Peace secretly feared for his parents.

"I was reading Sherlock Holmes and Marvel comics, cutting out photographs of dead prostitutes and listening to that voice on the tape [the Ripper Tape, a recording delivered to the West Yorkshire Police, subsequently proven to be a hoax] in Dewsbury bus station every night on the way home from school, making endless promises and deals with God if he would only capture and stop the Yorkshire Ripper." 

On the day Peter Sutcliffe appeared at Dewsbury Magistrates Court, Peace bunked off school and hung around the courthouse. His memories of the baying crowds, the punks and skinheads with their homemade nooses, the placards and the surge when a blanketed Sutcliffe was muscled from the van and into the building are all too vivid. They were scenes from an era that would go on to inform the novels that made his name.

The other defining event in his early years was the miners’ strike. "I was from a Labour family and, growing up in West Yorkshire, there was no question that we would support the miners," he says. "I was doing my A-levels at Wakefield Tech and I was in a band at the time. We played benefit gigs, we went on the picket lines and demos."

He was also attending football matches and becoming familiar with being manhandled, intimidated, verbally abused and even punched by officers of the law. "Those events defined my relationship with the police; incident after incident on a personal level. The miners’ strike and then, of course, Hillsborough. How do you grow up having any kind of respect or faith in the police after all that?"

Peace went on to study English at Manchester Polytechnic, before spending a couple of years on the dole while completing his first novel, a 250,000-word opus that he now describes as "pretentious shit". Its rejection by publishers, and some of the more dismissive letters he received, left him feeling scarred and depressed. When John Major secured a fourth successive election victory for the Conservatives in 1992, Peace decided it was time to get out.

He taught English for a year in Istanbul before taking up another teaching job in Tokyo in 1994, arriving in a city where he didn’t know a soul and spoke not a word of Japanese. In his first year there, he began writing again, this time purely for himself and with no thoughts of publication. Nineteen Seventy-Four, the story of a local newspaper reporter sucked into a netherworld of missing girls, bent coppers and burning gipsy camps, was completed longhand, a method he still employs today. And there it might have stayed had it not been for his father coming to visit. Basil Peace arrived bearing a gift: a copy of Acid Casuals, a fictionalised account of Mancunian ne’er-do-wells, written by one-time Factory Records signing Nicholas Blincoe.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below

"One day when I was working and it was raining heavily," Peace recalls, "Dad stayed in the room and read Nineteen Seventy-Four. He thought I should send it to the publishers." Encouraged by these words, Peace, who still reads his draft copy to his father, began typing up the manuscript, switching the narrative from the third person as he went.

The second step was meeting the man who’d become his agent, William Miller. "The first night I met him," Peace recounts, "William read the opening chapter of Nineteen Seventy- Four out loud in the bar of a hotel in Shibuya and, when he’d finished, he just said, ‘Leave it with me."

Most Popular

Sure enough, he returned home that night to find a phone message from John Williams, a non-fiction author Peace greatly admired and the crime editor at Serpent’s Tail, the publishers of Acid Casuals. "So after 10 years, in one night, a world apart, William became my agent and John my editor," he explains. "And William became not only my agent but my best friend. And John is simply one of the best editors there is."

Nineteen Seventy-Four, which would become the first book in the Red Riding quartet, was published in 1999. By this time Peace had married a Japanese woman, started a family and almost completed the next book in the series. Four years later, in 2003, he had finished the quartet and been named one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists.

Peace’s first six novels all depict the Yorkshire of his youth, the sixth being the best-selling The Damned Utd (2006), a quite brilliant psycho-geography of Brian Clough’s doomed 44-day tenure as manager of Leeds United. And yet they were all written from Japan, where he prepared for each by poring over old British newspapers in the National Diet Library, Japan’s only national library, and immersing himself in the music of the time. He maintains he needed this distance in order to be able to preserve and then conjure the landscape of his youth.

His seventh and eighth novels, Tokyo Year Zero and Tokyo: Occupied City, saw him focus on his adopted home, again using true crime as the basis for his fiction. Rather than thousands of miles, the language barrier – Peace admits his Japanese is "not great" – afforded him the sense of detachment from his subjects he requires. "With the Japanese books, I’m writing about a time and place I can never experience at all," he explains. "It is more important to actually be here and to try to excavate the information you need."

In 2009, having built his reputation while working from afar, Peace decided to relocate his family to England, where he planned to write the third and final book in the Tokyo trilogy. The move was a success in terms of allowing his kids to "be closer to their grandparents, more bilingual, and to know more about Yorkshire." But on a personal and professional level, it was not to be a happy homecoming.

"We came back at the tail-end of the Brown government, so I managed to time it to bring the Tories back," he says sardonically. "I’d watch breakfast TV or the news and I would be shaking. It sounds dramatic, but I was ranting and raving to anybody who would listen about just small things, really. People were saying to me, ‘It’s always been like this’." Peace can smile about it now, but it wasn’t funny at the time. "I think I was just overwhelmed by it, and distracted. I just wasn’t getting anything done."

The death of two of his mentors in quick succession – Gordon Burn, the author of such non-fiction masterpieces as Somebody’s Husband, Somebody’s Son, for which he had spent three years living in the community that produced Peter Sutcliffe, and Happy Like Murderers, a forensic and truly horrific account of the lives of Fred and Rose West; and then William Miller, his agent – sent Peace deeper into a hole.

"There was definitely a period in 2010 where I really wondered if I would write another book," he reveals. "It sounds dramatic but I was thinking I would just go back into teaching." By April 2011, he was ready to admit defeat and was making plans to return to Tokyo, where he had been offered a job with the English Literature department at the University of Tokyo. But then the phone rang and everything changed. 

At the other end of the line was Mike Jefferies, a film producer and lifelong Liverpool supporter. Jefferies told Peace he was a huge admirer of The Damned Utd, the book rather than the 2009 film starring Michael Sheen, and wanted to talk to him about the possibility of working on a screenplay about Bill Shankly.

"Even before he’d finished the sentence, it was if Shankly had been there all along and for some reason I’d been unable to see him," Peace says. "It was what I’d been searching for and wanting to write about." As a Huddersfield Town fan, he had been brought up on tales of Shankly’s time at the club, first as team coach and then as manager, before making his name at Liverpool. Shankly had also featured in The Damned Utd, leading out Liverpool at Wembley in the 1974 Charity Shield for his last match in charge as Brian Clough led out Leeds for his first. "It was like this presence," Peace says. "It was right in front of me."

Ripping tale: Andrew Garfield as Eddie Dunford, the young reporter in 2009's Red Riding TV adaption of Peace's novels.

The author stopped work on the third Tokyo book and embarked on the new project, hunting down material, speaking to Shankly’s previous biographers and immersing himself in the many stories shared on fan forums. In June that same year, the family moved back to Tokyo and an apartment in Sumidu-ku, in the north east of the city. And Peace found that he quickly settled back into his routine: waking at 5am each morning, travelling in on the subway to the centre with his daughter, poring over newspapers at the National Diet Library, writing longhand on foolscap in his small, smoky and book-cluttered office.

Again, he tried taking himself back to a time and a place through music, but found in this instance that he couldn’t stomach the easy-listening of Kenneth McKellar and Mario Lanza. Instead, he tuned into the past via the historical symphonies of Shostakovich, the paintings of LS Lowry and the poetry of Burns and Mayakovsky. But most important of all, he listened over and over to the voice of Bill Shankly.

Peace was given recordings of the many interviews done by John Roberts, the ghostwriter of Shankly’s 1976 autobiography, Shankly: My Story. "To have those tapes playing all the time here in Tokyo, to hear him talk, to hear the silences, the clock ticking, [his wife] Ness coming in with the tea and the biscuits... Obviously it’s a novel but to have that kind of presence when you are writing was a very, very special experience."

The result is both epic in scale and meticulous in its attention to detail. As a football fan, it made me proud that Britain could have produced such a figure; as a Liverpool fan, it saddened me that the club Shankly built treated him so shabbily. The second half of the novel is laced with melancholy, although Peace says he was at pains not to portray him as "a kind of King Lear figure wandering around in the wilderness". Shankly realises he has retired too early and is left to find outlets for his restless energy, while contending with his wounded pride and regret. While he continues to be feted by Liverpool’s fans and by football managers, teams and organisations across Britain, all Shankly really wants is to be invited back to Anfield. When the invitation doesn’t come, he has too much dignity to ask. He keeps the hurt this causes him to himself until finally hinting at it in his autobiography. The response from the Liverpool FC hierarchy is to ban the book from being sold in the club shop.

Stylistically, Red or Dead represents another bold leap; the simplicity of the prose and slavish repetition designed to mirror the rigour and single-minded application that Shankly brought to every area of his existence. Like Peace’s previous novels, it requires commitment on the part of the reader.

"It’s a fine line," he admits, "between grinding the reader down but, you know, this book for me was exhausting to write. In a way, I would like the reader to get to the end of the first half of the book absolutely exhausted by it [in order] to imagine what Shankly went through every single day of his life."

It will be 32 years next month since Bill Shankly’s death, but Peace is adamant he is as vital today as he was in his pomp. "My fear for the book is it reads as nostalgia," he admits. "To me, it’s about the present. He’s as relevant now as he has ever been, so I see it as a counter-narrative to the bollocks we are fed every day."

He also regards Red or Dead as the third novel in a loose trilogy that includes The Damned Utd and GB84. When asked to identify the ties that bind these books, beyond being rooted in the North, he pauses. "You can’t help but realise you are almost writing against, on one level, modern football, modern politics," he says finally. "I suppose it is looking at the decline of the British working-class, trade unionism, socialism... the things that propelled them, how they came unstuck and what happened."

The subtext is subtle, but readers of Peace will recognise familiar political themes. Towards the end of the book, as Margaret Thatcher is elected Prime Minister, he writes: "It was a different time, a different world. A world with no place for some men, some men left behind."

The spectre of Hillsborough, a disaster that took place on Thatcher’s watch and spoke of everything Shankly opposed, is addressed in two brief but poignant episodes; one an FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough in which Liverpool fans first adopt "You’ll Never Walk Alone" as their anthem, and again when Shankly sits among the fans at Maine Road and watches in anger as they are treated like animals.

"There was a period when there was one thing after the other: the final vindication, the truth coming out about what had happened [at Hillsborough]... the government acknowledgment of that; and then the [Jimmy] Savile [revelations]. In the wake of that, people started to talk about things that had gone on. The incidents that happened in GB84, the beating of the striking miners, the hooding, the pissing on them, throwing them out of backs of vans, all these things happened." He explains that had it not become mired, a film adaptation of GB84 might have been ready in time for Thatcher’s death.

"I don’t think until I wrote that book I realised the level of the sacrifice and suffering that people who had actually been on strike and their families had gone through," he says. "I felt a great amount of guilt as I was writing it and in the last year or so there has been a number of reckonings in terms of Britain now and in the past. But we haven't gone anywhere near deep enough. It’s still unfinished business. In a way, I don’t think that book is finished yet either."

But even as all this was unfolding, and the truth began to emerge about the sort of institutional venality that has been grist to the mill for David Peace for the last 15 years, he was locked away in Tokyo and trying to stay focused on the light for a change. All he had to do was shut his eyes and close his ears to all but the voice of Bill Shankly: "It was Saint Bill, really, who carried me through."

What do you think?

Snapchat Glasses
Culture
Share
Snapchat Is Bringing Out Sunglasses That Record Video
​Is this the end of days?​
Culture
Share
The Making Of David Bowie's Lost Soul Album
​How it got made—and why it was shelved—from those that were there​
Drake
Culture
Share
Drake Has Released His Own Action Film
​​A mix of Indecent Proposal, The Bourne Identity and Taken... ​apparently ​
Culture
Share
Nirvana's 'Nevermind' Baby Has Recreated His Cover Shot 25 Years Later
​"I said to the photographer, 'Let's do it naked.' But he thought that would be weird​"
TV
Share
Watch The Trailer For Matt Damon And Ben Affleck's New TV Series
​​It's a dystopian drama, and it looks surprisingly good​
Culture
Share
Is This The Worst Plane Seat Assignment Ever?
Hello, nightmares
Culture
Share
Watch Two Cars Delicately Drift In Sync
It's pretty mesmerising
Culture
Share
5 Things Every Man Needs To Know About This Week
​Your cultural(ish) guide to the week ahead​​
TV
Share
Game of Thrones Actors are Also Peeved About Their Characters Randomly Getting Killed
The man behind Doran Martell opens up about his one big moment last season
Culture
Share
This Is Where "Roger That" Really Comes From
​Copy that.​