It would have been brilliant, not least because it would have proved that money doesn’t conquer all. If Liverpool had won their first league title for twenty-four years, in the Spring of the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, in the month David Peace’s Red or Dead appears in paperback, it would have reminded us that, while many things are bigger than football, nothing in football is bigger than the game.
Few in their hearts would have begrudged the Reds victory. It wasn’t to be and, published in hardback last August, amid the smell of mown grass and talk of targeting the top four, and arriving between softcovers as surpassed expectations were giving way to dashed hopes, Peace’s epic about the life of Bill Shankly bookends Liverpool’s 2013/14 season.
There’s another anniversary this year, however, that’s all about defeat. I’ve been rereading GB84, Peace’s 2004 novel about the miners’ strike, the moment when Britain stopped making things, when the bottom line trumped the breadline, and when numbers began to be deemed more important than words. Peace says his fictions should not be read as records of the historical events they reimagine but GB84 makes explicit that Britain was in a state of civil war during the miners’ strike and more powerfully captures what was at stake than any non-fiction I know. As Alan Warner said, when revealing that his forthcoming novel, Their Lips Talk of Mischief, is set in 1984: “Something changed then that’s never changed back.”
Twenty years after the strike, I used to drink subsidised bitter and talk Chomsky at The Red Shed in Wakefield, which is a former haunt of Peace’s. It was full of trade unionists, the occasional anarchist and many former-miners who, contrary to the stereotype of embittered dinosaurs, had new jobs, long memories and broad interests. The anti-war demonstrations of 2003 stirred their strike memories. They were realistic about the chances of public opposition preventing war but they weren’t defeatist. On the eve of the invasion, one of them drew me a map of Iraq on a napkin and explained which historic tension was going to erupt where and who would slaughter who. Everything he predicted unfolded, which is strange because you often hear MPs saying: “If only I’d known …”
Sometimes it feels like we’re living in Peace’s Britain. There are long stretches of political calm before, suddenly, a royal celebration, an anniversary or the death of a divisive politician demonstrates that the old tensions are always lurking beneath the surface. Margaret Thatcher’s death last year reignited debates about her legacy and the Hillsborough inquests remind us of the cultural wounds that Peace excavates.
“It’s never finished,” he said of the language experiments in Occupied City, which involve mixing narration within the same paragraphs, even in the same sentences. What might be the next stage in this experiment? Words within words forging new words, so he ends up writing in his own language? Rereading GB84, I tried reading the miners’ monologues, which are printed on pages divided in to two columns, across the page. This created new, often nonsensical counter-narratives. In his 20s, Peace said, he dreamed of becoming “the Burroughs of Manchester.”
Peace is so shrewd about choosing subjects that it’s tantalising to imagine the books he might have written instead of the books he writes. When I heard he was writing about Shankly, I wondered what happened to his plans to write a novel about Geoffrey Boycott. The possibilities of fictionalising the Yorkshire batsman during the isolation of a long, hot innings, as the bouncers and demons whizz around his head, are unlimited. Perhaps Boycott, like Liverpool, will get another chance, or perhaps his innings must reach its end before Peace brings him to life. Whatever Peace writes, you should read. With your eyes. And your ears.
Max Liu is a writer, journalist and reviewer for a number of publications including the Independent on Sunday, TLS and 3AM Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @maxjliu.