Tuesday, 3 February 2009
The Damned United
Into university first thing to discuss a proposed doctorate, all the nitty gritty of focus and scope. No snow at all, but full sunlight on bare road, with some spots of delicate black ice, thin as the thinnest glass, gently frazzled, like an old oil painting with craquelure. Yes, and slippery.
Then home to make notes on another doctorate I had read some weeks ago and made scribbled notes about on scraps of post-it sticky paper stuffed here and there inside the thesis. That took most of the day.
Now it is evening and my eyes and back are well past the strains of the violet hour. A whole day thinking and turning scribbles into a draft for a sensible report.
In odd moments I thought back to David Peace's book about Brian Clough, The Damned United. Reviews: Guardian here, Observer here, and some bloggies here. And here is one registering Clough's widow, Barbara's, hostile reaction.
As is well known, the book is concerned primarily with the real Brian Clough's doomed forty-four day period as manager of a team he hated, Leeds United. Unusually for a work of fiction it carries a bibliography at the back to show Peace has drawn on available material in the form of other books about or including Clough. In other words it draws attention to his own book's non-fiction, documentary aspect.
I was not entirely swept away by the book. I don't know whether I even liked it very much. Technically it alternates between Clough at Leeds, day by day, and Clough at Derby County, building a top quality European side from nothing. Clough is generally shown to be a proud, vain, obsessive, deeply vulnerable, insecure, childish man who gets drunk whenever he is down, which is frequently, and who shamelessly exploits those around him.
I have no idea whether he was like that, of course. I only know the fiction Peace presents us with. I am prepared to believe - in a fiction suspension-of-disbelief sense - in the depiction of claustrophobic, nefarious, and poisonous board-rooms and dressing rooms. I think Peace is good at showing the delicate balance between admiration, envy, loathing and contempt in Clough's attitude to the previous and hugely successful manager of Leeds, Don Revie. I think he is good at portraying a certain kind of partnership-friendship-mutual dependency between Clough and his sidekick, Peter Taylor, and he is good at male group loyalty. I don't mean he is great, I mean he is feasible and vivid.
But Clough, as I remember him, was witty and smart as well as deliberately provocative, and Peace gives me not the least idea why he was any good as a manager, either in human terms or technically. And Clough was outstandingly good. In fact he was a genius. Fair enough, Peace might think that football talk will bore a non-football reader, but I think it is important in presenting a real, identifiable figure in fictional terms. And, after all, it is a little patronising to football and footballers to assume their craft is somehow beneath the reader. And Clough, the fiction, should be feasible as a fictional manager of genius.
He makes absolutely nothing of the way he carried his favourite players round from team to team - John O'Hare and John McGovern come to mind. It would be good to know what he saw in them and they in him. There must have been a strange and potent relationship between them that is key to the character and his public success, but we see nothing of it. Not in the fiction, though the fiction requires it.
And strangest of all we are left at the end of the book with a sense that it is all over for Clough, that tragedy has caught up with him, so it is quite impossible to believe that he recovered and led a completely new team, Nottingham Forest, to heights even greater than Derby's, often using players of seemingly average ability. Not only did he carry that team to heights, he kept them there.
It wasn't just because he got pissed with them and swore at them a lot which is what Peace might lead you to assume. And here, because we know Clough was not a fiction, but a real man in real time and space, fiction breaks against fact, and, for me, actually breaks. Simply breaks.
There is a vast chunk of Clough missing in Peace's book, and it is not football but the human life, or that part of human life in which football is involved, which is, in the end, simply human life, as much human life as if Clough were a nuclear physicist, a spy a multiple murderer or a philanderer, the Don Juan of Derby. No wonder Barbara Clough loathed it. She must have felt that a part of her own life had been stolen from her and appropriated for someone else's use.
Indeed, it is fiction not biography, so it says on the cover. It is that tricky area where a writer with a sense of what constitutes tragedy takes a real figure and adapts him for the purpose. All fiction appropriates to some degree. It is just that the appropriation seems more brutal, less convincing on this occasion.
Incidentally, that is the Nottingham Forest badge he is wearing on his blazer in the photo. He looks some way short of tragedy. John McGovern is, I think, the head peeping out behind him, Peter Taylor is the older one and, in the background, is Viv Anderson with a haircut that makes him look like Danny John-Jules, the cat in Red Dwarf. I'm not all high culture and rock 'n' roll.