Friday, February 07, 2014

Where have you gone, Bill Shankly?

Bill Shankly
A few decades ago, one of the U.S. television networks began offering what it called "Up Close and Personal" looks at athletes.   Now no newspaper, large or small, is without its inspirational feature stories about athletes who battled long odds to get this far.

A few years later, ex-athletes began to go into television in big numbers, at first those who had had only marginal success as players or coaches, but increasingly, in recent years, former stars. Schooled in the power of TV and public relations, they maintained eye contact with their interviewers or interviewees and addressed them by their first names, voices carefully modulated to suggest empathy.  That the empathy more closely resembled the kind deployed by a human resources director, a real estate agent, or a mutual funds salesman than that of a friend with whom you'd schmooze over a drink or a meal or a cup of coffee didn't matter. Sincerity, and its close relative, personality,  were commodities, packaged for quick sale in a crowded market.

As transparently calculated as those trends were, they made perfect sense. As increasing salaries moved athletes in the major sports stratospheres out of their fans' social and economic orbits, teams, networks, and newspapers had to fabricate substitutes for the social bonds that no longer existed. Broadcasters began referring to players by their first names. Fans who could no longer afford to come to games would be given The NFL/MLB/NBA/NHL Experience. Reporters were only too happy to overpraise as great human beings any athlete in the top American sports leagues who had never been in prison, to laud as a family man any male athlete who did not beat, mistreat, or cheat on his wife or girlfriend, or whose agent managed to keep the misdeeds out of the papers. (Read the great Onion parody "Pro Athlete Lauded for Being Decent Human Being" for all you need to know about this trend.)

And that's why Red or Dead, David Peace's novel about the former Liverpool FC soccer manager Bill Shankly, is so moving an experience. It is a reminder that things were not always this way, that a celebrated coach once existed for whom dedication to the job, love for team and its fans, and devotion to his family were more than slogans or easy hooks. It is a vindication of generosity, hard work, loyalty, and all those concepts cheapened by noxious waves of political and commercial hucksterism.

Peace deploys any number of techniques to create his version of Shankly, some of them stylistic and technical quirks that he admits might drive some readers nuts. (The novel's first three words, "Repetition. Repetition. Repetition," are an apt summation of both Shankly's technique and Peace's.) Others are more subtle, such as his relegation of notable historical events and milestones in Shankly's life to allusion rather than direct mention, the better to focus attention on Shankly's single-mindedness. Sure, commentary on Peace tends to focus on his technical tricks, but in Red or Dead, the man — Bill Shankly — is the thing.

Lest you think that Red or Dead wallows in nostalgia, that other great salable commodity in popular culture, know that if Shankly, who died in 1981 and who deplored what had begun to happen to sports in his last years, were to look over my shoulder at this post, he would not despair. Rather, I think, he would slap me on the back, give me an inspirational lecture, and tell me to buck up and get back to the task at hand. And I would listen and believe him.
I'm too tired to start discussing politics, but it's worthwhile to note that, while the virtues David Peace's Shankly displays — the hard work, the determination, the devotion to family and colleagues, the love of community — are those we consider conservative today, Shankly considered himself a socialist, though with disdain for or lack of interest in theoretical socialism.

© Peter Rozovsky 2014

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Anonymous LRJ said...

I've enjoyed your posts on this book and am looking forward to starting it.

Dont you think though, that the traits of hard work, love of family and community etc... are traits that conservatives (US conservatives at least) have tried to convince the public that liberals don't share?

February 08, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Thanks, and I hope you enjoy the book.

I think you're right about U.S. conservatives. One could argue, too, that U.S. liberals played into their hands by ignoring white, urban working classes--the very people that formed the heart of Bill Shankly's world (though I would be wary of drawing excessive parallels between England the the U.S., of course.)

How is it that conservatives came to appropriate public claim to those virtues? How is it that liberals were blind enough to let them do it? How is it that a conservative came to write a book with the preening, self-regarding title The Book of Virtues? That this conservative, William Bennett, was later revealed to have racked up million-dollar gambling debts is only a distraction, albeit a delicious one, from the theme of this post: that in a culture where virtues have become just one more label, just one more selling tool, David Peace found a character for whom they were real, and powerful. A virtuous man such as his version of Shankly does not have to go around advertising how virtuous he is. Red or Dead is a cure for cynicism.

February 08, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

It's funny, because apparently the right is now willing to give up family values in favor of corporate ones. This is a clip from the Daily Show, the most relevant part being at about 2:32

February 08, 2014  
Blogger seana graham said...

Whoops, I got so caught up in trying to decipher the password that I forgot to add the clip:

February 08, 2014  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Well, I will say that conservatism these days is a pretty incoherent phenomenon in the U.S. Does it stand for cutting government spending? For spending big money on wars? For "family values"? For religious values? For Christian values? I also half-suspect that this country is already bought and sold by corporations, and that future political struggles will be waged not for or against that, but on how best (or least harmfully) to make use of it. In that scenario, politicians would shift from wielders of power to steerers and manipulators of it, deciding whose money goes where.

One thing that struck me in the run-up to the government shutdown was how silly, unconvinced, and unconvincing John Boehner sounded when he said Congress should be judged not on how many laws it passes, but on how many it repeals. That sounded not just like an appeal to the tea party, but a like a clumsy appeal. I felt a certain pity for the guy when he said that.

The second section of Red or Dead, which covers Bill Shankly's retirement from Liverpool, is full of offers to him from soccer clubs, other organizations, and advertisers. I am sure that had Shankly's story happened in the U.S., both major parties would have been courting him to run for the Senate at the least.

Parenthetically, it would be hard to imagine a top-level sports team in the U.S. as a vehicle for community feeling the way Shankly's Liverpool FC was. American major-league sports teams will occasionally be referred to casually as clubs, but that's an affectation. There's nothing of the togetherness or fellow-feeling of a club to American sports teams, and there probably has not been since the middle of the nineteenth century.

Liverpool, on the other hand, and I think the top-level soccer teams in other European countries as well, really are clubs, with youth teams extending down to very young ages. That's the sort of thing that I can well imagine would get a city or town involved.

February 09, 2014  

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