Better heard than read? The poetry of sports faction

Book publisher, sports book publisher, a publisher of sports books, a sports book publisher… well, you get the idea: RANDALL NORTHAM went to a reading of the latest piece of sports literature by David Peace

York. York station. To Leeds. From York. From medieval York to Victorian Leeds. Twenty-five minutes on the train, from York to Leeds. From medieval York to Victorian Leeds. Twenty-five minutes from York station with it’s majestic curved roof to Leeds’ modern station. By train from York to Leeds. The Transpennine Express from York to Leeds. Twenty-minutes on a train to hear two authors talking. Talking in Leeds, from York.


Author David Peace: his latest faction is about Bill Shankly's time at Liverpool
Author David Peace: his latest faction is about Bill Shankly’s time at Liverpool

I am travelling from York to Leeds – medieval York to Victorian Leeds (help, it’s contagious) – to listen to David Peace, author of the Red Riding quartet and The Damned United and now Red Or Dead, a 720-page book about Bill Shankly, just published by Faber and Faber.

Peace was talking to, interviewing and being interviewed by one of my Facebook friends (I’d met him briefly once but he’s a football reporter and I was one a while ago), Anthony Clavane, author of The Promised Land and Does Your Rabbi Know You’re Here?, with Robert Endeacott as chairman. Good Lord, a publisher listening to three authors. One at a time is more than enough. And I went with one of SportsBooks’ authors, Steve Lewis, whose biography of Ken Jones Boots and Spikes and account of the 1938 Lions tour of South Africa The Last of the Blue Lions, we published.

Despite the errors in its account of Brian Clough’s short stay in charge at Leeds, The Damned United was a wonderful book, full of characters I knew from my time writing about football and the Bill Shankly book promises to be the same; except – and it’s a big exception – I’m not sure I can come to terms with Peace’s style, which seems to get ever more staccato and repetitive. His argument was that Bill Shankly had trained every day for for 15 years with Liverpool and if he’d said “Bill Shankly went training” just the once it wouldn’t have portrayed the relentless nature of such a feat. He wanted the reader to be exhausted by the time in the book that Shankly retires, as Shankly was. I take his point, but…

He read two passages wonderfully, although it seemed to me more like poetry than prose. A sort of literary rap. I think I’d enjoy it if it was turned into an audio book. Afterwards people were thinking of David Tennant to do the recording.

And I’m still ambivalent about “faction”, which is what Red Or Dead is. Because David Peace quotes Shankly and he was not there when the supposed quotes were given. But The Damned United is faction as well – Peace wasn’t around Elland Road for Brian Clough’s Ill-fated 44 days in charge – and that worked very well.

Anthony Clavane’s books are more conventional in style (and that’s not intended as a slight) and can be crudely summed up as an examination of the dichcotomy between being Jewish and being a football supporter. The passage he read had the headmaster of the Selig Brodetsky Day School confiscating the football the boys used at break time, only for them to turn up with a tennis ball. When that was confiscated as well they turned to a banana skin and then some orange peel. I was surprised they didn’t end up with a stone which was what we used for a kick around when we had nothing else. But I was at school in the 1950s when times were much harder. There was always some idiot who headed the stone, but it didn’t hurt much if you timed it properly.

So I’m going to read Anthony’s books and, hopefully, listen to David’s.


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Thu Dec 12: SJA 2013 British Sports Awards. Venue and ticket booking details to be announced soon