“The Damned United” – David Peace’s Cult Take on The Emperor’s New Clothes – by Rob Atkinson


Books can be long.  Sentences can be short.  Repetition beats inspiration.

Books can be long. Sentences can be short. Repetition beats inspiration for commercial success. I’m David Bloody Peace.

As any avid reader will know, it’s frequently the second or subsequent reading of a book that gives you a real insight into what it’s all about. Equally, giving up on a book part-way through tells you all you need to know about that work. But all too often, you’ll read a book just the once and walk away with an experience that might actually be quite misleading. Such, I suspect, is the case with David Peace’s “The Damned United”.

I read this once, seduced by the subject matter and what sounded a suspiciously extravagant claim to “get inside the head of Brian Clough”. The prose style was – well, let’s say ‘different’.  But it survived a one-off read and, give or take some fanciful fictionalising together with a legion of liberties taken with history, it got me through three or four evenings tolerably riveted.  And I got a perverse jolt out of the title.  The Damned United. That’s us, that is.  I guessed there and then that Leeds fans would take it up as a badge of honour.  I guarantee that is not what was intended.

Then a short time ago I heard that Peace had written a similar book on Bill Shankly and I read some distinctly lukewarm verging on unimpressed reviews.  Intrigued, I asked my wife what she’d thought of the author’s bleak crime series set in West Yorkshire in the seventies, at the time the Ripper was active.  She pulled a face that spoke a thousand words.  So, I decided to revisit “The Damned United”.

Many will be familiar with the storyline.  Some from this book, others less helpfully from the lamentable film of the same name.  Then there are those lucky few who actually lived through the events described, or who are students of Leeds United history; they will be the best informed of all.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the narrative, whatever injustices were done to the likes of Johnny Giles, Don Revie and Clough himself, whatever the departures from historical accuracy – it is the style, for want of a more appropriate word, that I want to address here.  So let’s see if we have any more success in getting inside the head of David Peace than the author enjoyed in his attempt to read the character of Brian Clough. As a task, it should be a lot less complex.

Into the office, sit at the desk, boot the computer.

I sit staring at the screen and wait for inspiration.  No ideas.  No Clough speaking to me. Not here.  Not today.  It’s the first day of a project.  The first day.  Of how many days? The project is Clough.  But he’s not speaking to me. Not here.  Not today.

I write down some random sentences.  Pick them up later, use them where I can. Use them again and again.  It’ll do.

Don’s office, Don’s bloody desk, Don’s chair.  Brown envelopes stuffed with cash. Whispering in the corridors of Elland Road.  Elland bloody Road.  Under ugly Yorkshire skies, an ugly Yorkshire stadium.  There I am.  Don’s office, Don’s bloody desk, Don’s chair.  Brown envelopes stuffed with cash.

That’ll do, I can use that.  I just need to get inside Cloughie’s head now.

But Cloughie’s dead.  He’s not speaking to me.  Not here.  Not today.

I have a break.  Clear my head, make room for Cloughie, if he decides to talk. Out into the garden, breathe some clean air.  Then it’s back to it.  Back to the project. Back to that damned United, waiting for Cloughie, though Cloughie is dead.  Back to it.

Into the office, sit at the desk, boot the computer.  Brian is in my head.  Brian is swearing. He’s the Leeds United manager but he hates it.  Hates it.  Hates Leeds United.  I can hear him. Hating Leeds United, hating Don bloody Revie. There he is.  Don’s office, Don’s bloody desk, Don’s chair.  Brown envelopes stuffed with cash. Whispering in the corridors of Elland Road. Elland bloody Road.  Under ugly Yorkshire skies, an ugly Yorkshire stadium.

I can do this.  I’m David Peace.  David bloody Peace.  Author.  Huddersfield Town fan. Hate Leeds United, hate, hate, hate.  Hate them for what they were, for what they are. Cloughie is the same as me, like that.  But Cloughie is dead. And now he’s gone out of my head for the day.  But there’s always another day. Always. Always one more bloody day.

Into the office, sit at the desk, boot the computer.  No ideas.  No Clough speaking to me. Not here.  Not today….

And so it goes on, that style.  In parodying it, I actually cut down on the repetition, minimised the number of stock phrases, decimated the profanity count.  But it gives some idea, I feel, of David Peace’s formulaic approach to establishing his own “style”.  There, that troublesome word again, “style”. Some authors have an inimitable style because it’s genuinely unique to them, it can’t effectively be reproduced by other writers.  Some authors’ styles should be inimitable because nobody would really want to imitate them – except in parody.  Mr Peace falls into the latter camp.

On first reading, it’s something you can live with and the narrative bumbles along, reinforced, it seems, by the constant repetition, the continual use of pre-packaged standard buzz-phrases.  It’s meant to convey the turmoil inside Clough’s head, the way he continually questions, cajoles, reassures himself.  At first glance it appears to do that.  But on revisiting this book, I found myself irritated by the repetition, wearied by the recurrence of the buzz-phrases, disillusioned with it all.

In “The Emperor’s New Clothes” everyone marvels at the Head Honcho’s wonderful new invisible costume, right up until the little boy, unhindered by years of training in subservience and hypocrisy, calls out “But that man’s bare naked!” – and the illusion is shattered.  One re-reading of “The Damned United” was enough to shatter the illusion created by my first reading, and I know now what David Peace is all about.

I’d be interested to learn how long the book would be without all the padding. Not exactly of epic length, I suspect. If you were also to subtract the ubiquitous profanity in Clough’s speech – in real life he was not, apparently, a profane man – then Peace’s Meisterwerk would be shorter still. Honest, Brian – it’d be none the worse for that.

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37 responses to ““The Damned United” – David Peace’s Cult Take on The Emperor’s New Clothes – by Rob Atkinson

  1. Well, if you have to read it twice, then it says more about the reader than the author.

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    • If you’ve never read a book more than once, you’re not really a reader at all. But don’t let me stop you from having a pop if it gives you your jollies.

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  2. Ha, I don’t normally have to read fairy tales twice!

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  3. I heard an interview with the author not long ago and he came across very well , “for a town fan”

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  4. Neil Sheard

    I have read both books and struggle to understand what David Peace is trying to deliver other then writing about two of the most successful managers in recent football history and trying to publicise them as something of actual real insight. Both books are based on his own made up opinion of his own biased view inside the mind of both Revie and Shankly. One guy he obviously admires and one he detests. He then gets around this by saying they are both works of fiction. Overall read the books and make up your mind but don’t believe the hype.

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  5. I don’t know what Peacey was smoking when he wrote his book.

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  6. Ian finlay

    As leeds fans I think we get sadistic pleasure at being hated, we don’t want to be liked,so all I can say is ,,,if you hate leeds utd have a go,,if you hate leeds utd have a go ,,MOT

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  7. here we go with leeds utd , were gonna give the boys a hand , stand up and sing for leeds utd, COS WE ARE THE GREATEST IN THE LAND, na na naa everyday were all gonna say we love you LEEDS LEEDS LEEDS, every where were gonna be there we love you LEEDS LEEDS LEEDS, MARCHING OOOON TOGETHER WERE GONNA SEE YOU WIN , naa na naa na naa na , we are so proud we shouted out loud we love you , LEEDS LEEDS LEEDS, Hockadays italian army, hockadays italian army, hockadays italian army, hockadays italian army, hockadays italian army

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  8. Haven’t read the book. Or seen the film. Won’t do it. Lived through that shit. Enough pain without reliving it. Haven’t read the book. Won’t do it.

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  9. Daniel ormondroyd

    And what do I read, and re-read from this – Just because he supports Huddersfield Town he must hate leeds united and everything / everyone we stand for. You need to get out more.

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  10. David Dean

    I have read both books and for me they are master’peaces’ . We all have our own preconceived ideas. We are all individuals with our own opinions and reactions. I loved the Damned United – especially the book and the film. I loved Don Revie – started following Leeds in 1961 as a 10 year old. I have a season ticket for the coming season – I love Leeds United. When Clough came to Leeds in 1974 I was fascinated by him – taking binoculars to watch him in the dugout. I was pleased when he was sacked as it was a disaster but I was forever fascinated by him. The Damned United is a magnificent novel – it is a novel laced with truth and possibilities of what it could have been like, not what it really was like. I found it hugely entertaining, funny and I know what is truth and exaggeration and what is fiction. The Shankly book I am less able to judge fairly as I didn’t know Shankly like I knew Revie but reading that book left me in now doubt that Shankly is in the same category of manager as Revie and Clough. They are the Holy Trinity of our religion!

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    • Wot, no Busby?? Heresy!!

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    • I think busby, shankley, revie and stein belong in the same group, they issued in the modern game and made British sides feared in European football.

      Cough to me is one of them managers that needs to be a big fish in a smaller pond, have total control and build up smaller clubs like Derby or a mid sized club like forest into a footballing force.. There’s a reason no other big clubs came in for him after Leeds.

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  11. If he is a Leeds hating dog botherer you have just made him smile Rob.
    I read the book and watched the film both enjoyed with a large amount of salt firmly pinched between my fingers

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  12. I’ve not read the damned united, but I have read the red riding quartet, gb1984 and have started Tokyo year zero.

    The thing with peaces books is they aren’t meant to be historical accounts, they are deliberately fictionalised. So while gb1984 is avout the miners strike, much of the charters are fictional. Likewise while the red riding quartet is superficially about the ripper, its really about police coruption in the 70s and 80s, so It takes in stuff like the stephan klitchko case and the john stalker afair even though that was greater manchester police.

    What hes trying to do with gb1984 and the red riding books is create his own genre of “yorkshire noir”, he’s kind of embracing the whole “its grim up north” thing, he’s Interested in the taciturn say nothing, hide your emotions “real man” thing we have going on. I’m guessing off the film, the damned united fits Into the same genre.

    I think you might enjoy gb1984 rob, going off your Intetest in politics.

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  13. sniffersshorts

    Read the book I will say it’s interesting and I seem to remember it was a sports book of the year …. Like many because it contained stories about my hero,s of that time so it interested me …… Most books have hero,s most have a villain boo hiss he’s behind youoooo ….. As a kid when clough

    took over …. I don’t hate anybody but I disliked clough to me the villain my late father was delighted and told me he would do well for us 44 days he gave 44 days of Hell in young kids eyes ….. Bring back the don ….. And like a white knight riding of into mythology he never came back ….. A nor did clough …….

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  14. I have to say I quite enjoyed the thriller books and enjoyed damned United for what it was, yes I think it was a bit over the top but it was still pretty good reading .I think it was more about Clough’s excesses than anything, but the film was just plain daft really, it looked like it was put together by amateurs, the players looked out of character but it was about us so we get into it don’t we ?

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  15. I hear that Steve McFadden is in line to play David Hockaday in Mr Peace’s next screenplay entitled ‘Lost our cup final Again!’

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  16. Bill Watmough

    Pointless piece.

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    • I agree – but it’s spelled “Peace”.

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      • witsleeds

        Rob i am sure bill and peter are bittersfield town dogbummers! Don’t respond to the little peasants! If you ignore them they might found the time in their lonely lifes to check out the small dogs webshites when that is they have refrained from masturbating watching”uniiiiiiiteds”pride of Devon sites(yes town fans other favorite team)! Anyway Rob must agree pal we have to back dh,time will tell.MOT 😎⚽

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  17. Bill Watmough

    Love your work, Rob, but this was not one of your best is all I am saying. MOT

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  18. Found the Red Riding quartet absolutely compelling and have re-read them many times in an attempt to extract as much of the inner meaning as possible. Much of the action takes place in the area where I grew up which adds to the fascination.

    The Damned United was a decent read, but not in the same league.

    Both are equally bleak in their view of how people are motivated to act as they do.

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  19. I met David Peace a few times, he’s a mate of my friend also a writer, he seems a fairly fine as a person. The book is I have to say a fiction from some facts, as it seems are a lot of his stuff. The film is pretty poor from my viewpoint and as some directors want, it made a crisis out of a drama rather than just a drama.
    My perspective re the hudds town element, is that all he could think of doing was something about Super Leeds not his own club and therein is the nub, most leeds fans would probably like to see Hudds do well if it wasn’t for a large section of their fans carping, cup final anti leeds attitude.

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    • I seem to remember a film about huddersfield with Steve coogan as their manager,about the whole “monkey glands” scandal thing.

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  20. Take with a pinch of salt rob my friend,bittersfield town dog fuckers love a dig at the glamorous cousins across yond! I enjoyed the film simply for the genius actor skills of sheen,and chose to ignore the predictable anti dirty Leeds scum bias so often venomed from bitter types! And i agree with your opinion that we fans simply have no choice to back hockaday,fuck negativity.greatest place in the world is elland road when rocking as one and lifting the roof

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  21. new song; who’s wickadoo Hockaday(as in wackaday)

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  22. Yes we have been blessed. I personally would add John Charles, Bobby Collins and even Eric Cantona to Billy Bremner and Gordon Strachan, as the best and most influential players ever to grace the Elland Road turf. An injury free Eddie Gray would almost certainly have joined them.
    With regard to the two managers, both were exceptionally good, but each had 1 flaw. Don Revie had a fear of losing, and as a consequence we dropped numerous points where we went a goal up and tried to defend it rather than confirm our obvious superiority with further goals.Only to concede a goal in the dying minutes when it was too late to recover.

    Howard Wilkinson similarly had one fault, he could not cope with “star players” I remember at Sheffield Wednesday he bought the then England winger Mark Chamberlain but in my opinion could not cope with the fan adulation and barely played him. Here at Leeds he had the same problem with both Eric Cantona and Vinnie Jones once they became adored by the fans, they were quickly moved on. The one thing I will never understand is how he could allow a player who was obviously worth way over £5 million to be transferred to our worst enemy at a bargain basement price, even if the behind the scene rumours were true, how could he? Without Cantona the scum were very ordinary, and Fergusons reign would have been over in the early years. Matt Busby built a very good side lost it at Munich and rebuilt it. Truly a great manager. Bill Shankly built a great side and maintained it over many years. All be it in ScotlandJock Stein also proved himself to be a great manager over many years, and for a short period I was expecting great things at Leeds before his nation called and his untimely death.

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    • i don’t know there with Wilkinson, surely strachan, mcallister, batty, speed, dorigo, fairclough, Wallace etc.. count as star players.

      Wasn’t the thing with cantona he’d been at it with one of the other players wifes?

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      • Mr orange

        I think the story was made up at the time ste because a lot of fans couldn’t work out why Wilkinson would sell such a talented player to our main rival for a million quid , it was a shock at the time and there was near riots outside elland rd , it was also ( in my opinion) the catalyst for Wilkinson’s eventual departure…

        Like

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