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Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Fact or Fiction? - 'The Damned United' and 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me'

When I first read it I thought The Damned United utterly brilliant. The black heart of football, 70s England, Yorkshire and Leeds Utd in particular, presented through a dazzling first-person novelization of Brian Clough's extraordinary 44-day tenure of the Elland Road hotseat. Marvellous. Football seemed to have found its Heart of Darkness (though whether it was looking for one is another question I suppose). My one grievance was that the end didn't quite justify the bravura performance, rushing toward a climax which never quite arrived. But it seemed a fabulous journey all the same...  

Now I'm not quite so sure. Recently, and particulary in the context of the recent (and by all accounts much more soft-centred) film, David Peace has taken to describing 'The Damned United' as 'fiction', which seems like, excuse me, disingenuous bullshit. If you want to write fiction, it's not a good idea to base it around real names and circumstances which create the very strong impression of fact, and expect people (especially friends and family) not to be offended and upset (justifiably for once). Can calling your work 'a fiction' be a defence for any kind of defamation?

I suppose the irony is that no-one who knew Clough would deny that it's a fiction. I gather they would emphatically go along with that. What they object to is it being presented as a version of the facts. However... I can't get away from the fact that I really liked the book. Around the central Clough story it vividly and viscerally expressed some truths about the 1970s in general and football in that period in particular which chimed with my own recollections. But the more I hear David Peace talk about it, the uneasier I am with the way it presents Brian Clough.

On the other hand, Duncan Hamilton's 'Provided You Don't Kiss Me' is just excellent, straightforward sports biography, distinguished by Hamilton's closeness to his subject and the resulting intimacy of the portrait. No tricks, no fiction or imagined scenes, just sensitive writing and informed analysis of the Clough career and of a very different time in British football - a big enough story in its own right to require very little embroidery. 

Hamilton makes no bones about how fortunate he was to be allowed unparalleled access to the force of nature that was Brian Clough. The portrait that emerges seems to come from something for which 'love' is maybe the only appropriate word; it's to his credit that it never seems like obsession as, throughout, he is remarkably clear-eyed about Clough's weaknesses as well as his astonishing triumphs. The excellent and detailed accounts of how Clough took not one but two poor-to-middling English clubs to the heights of European glory (a feat that one struggles to imagine being repeated today) are balanced by an understanding of his very human insecurities and frailties, and by an increasingly dominant subtext - a (literally) sobering account of how low even a character as powerful as Clough could be laid by alcohol. 

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